Greenland, Antarctica Glaciers Speeding Faster Toward the Sea

By Alex Morales

Feb. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica are melting faster than predicted, accelerating their march to the sea and adding to the rising ocean levels that threaten coastal communities worldwide.

The Pine Island Glacier, the biggest in West Antarctica, has sped 40 percent faster toward the sea since the 1970s and Smith Glacier is moving 83 percent quicker than 15 years ago, said David Hik, executive director of the Canadian secretariat of the International Polar Year, an international scientific project.

“The loss of ice is pretty spectacular,” Hik, a professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said today in a telephone interview from Geneva. “The big outflow glaciers on Greenland are accelerating their discharge as well.”

The study means scientists now have a better handle on the potential contribution to sea-level rise of melting ice sheets than two years ago, when the United Nations produced its biggest report on global warming, predicting an increase in sea levels of 18 to 59 centimeters (7 to 23 inches) this century.

The UN acknowledged a lack of certainty about ice loss from Antarctica. The latest findings will help refine climate-change modeling and predictions of future sea-level rise, Hik said.

“Altogether, the glaciers in the West Antarctic are losing about 103 billion tons a year of ice in discharge,” he said. “This discharge from west Antarctica would add an additional 10 to 20 centimeters” to the existing UN predictions of sea level rise this century, he said.

While the UN said a complete melt of the West Antarctic ice sheet is unlikely this century, Hik said “we thought lots of things were unlikely even two years ago.” A collapse of the sheet could add 1 to 1.5 meters to sea levels this century, he said.

“The effects of warming are going to be global,” Hik said. “What happens at the poles will influence all parts of the planet and it’s very evident that we can see rapid changes in sea level associated with changes in the Arctic and Antarctic.”

International Polar Year drew in 50,000 researchers from 63 countries, according to Hik. The project spanned two years, ending next month, to incorporate a full year each of the Arctic in the north and the Antarctic in the south.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Morales in London at amorales2@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: February 26, 2009 10:35 EST