In late January 2019, parts of the United States shivered when the polar vortex (a band of strong winds that normally stays in the Arctic region) caused an extreme drop in temperature. Chicago had wind chill factors as low as -46℃. At the same time, parts of Australia were experiencing a severe heatwave, while northern Queensland received 1.4 metres of rain in a matter of days.
Several New Zealand locations also experienced heatwaves. The hot, dry conditions contributed to massive bushfires in the South Island’s Tasman region.
Such extreme and unpredictable weather is likely to get worse as ice sheets at both poles continue to melt. This warning comes from research carried out by Nicholas R Golledge, Elizabeth D Keller, Natalya Gomez, Kaitlin A Naughten, Jorge Bernales, Luke D Trusel and Tamsin L Edwards, published in Nature. This article by Nick Golledge summarises their research and is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons licence CC BY-ND 4.0.
Last week, rivers froze over in Chicago when it got colder than at the North Pole. At the same time, temperatures hit 47℃ in Adelaide during the peak of a heatwave.
Such extreme and unpredictable weather is likely to get worse as ice sheets at both poles continue to melt.
Our research, published in February 2019, shows that the combined melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is likely to affect the entire global climate system, triggering more variable weather and further melting. Our model predictions suggest that we will see more of the recent extreme weather, both hot and cold, with disruptive effects for agriculture, infrastructure and human life itself.
We argue that global policy needs urgent review to prevent dangerous consequences.
Accelerated loss of ice
Even though the goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep warming below 2℃ (compared to pre-industrial levels), current government pledges commit us to surface warming of 3–4℃ by 2100. This would cause more melting in the polar regions.
Already, the loss of ice from ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland, as well as mountain glaciers, is accelerating as a consequence of continued warming of the air and the ocean. With the predicted level of warming, a significant amount of meltwater from polar ice would enter the Earth’s oceans.
We have used satellite measurements of recent changes in ice mass and have combined data from both polar regions for the first time. We found that, within a few decades, increased Antarctic melting would form a lens of freshwater on the ocean surface, allowing rising warmer water to spread out and potentially trigger further melting from below.
In the North Atlantic, the influx of meltwater would lead to a significant weakening of deep ocean circulation and affect coastal currents such as the Gulf Stream, which carries warm water from the tropics into the North Atlantic. This would lead to warmer air temperatures in Central America, eastern Canada and the high Arctic but colder conditions over northwestern Europe on the other side of the Atlantic.
Recent research suggests that tipping points in parts of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may have already been passed. This is because most of the ice sheet that covers West Antarctica rests on bedrock far below sea level - in some areas, up to 2 kilometres below.
Bringing both poles into one model
It can be a challenge to simulate the whole climate system because computer models of climate are usually global, but models of ice sheets are typically restricted to just Antarctica or just Greenland. For this reason, the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment used climate models that excluded ice sheet interactions.
Global government policy has been guided by this assessment since 2013, but our new results show that the inclusion of ice sheet meltwater can significantly affect climate projections. This means we need to update the guidance we provide to policy makers. And because Greenland and Antarctica affect different aspects of the climate system, we need new modelling approaches that look at both ice sheets together.
Seas rise as ice melts on land
Apart from the impact of meltwater on ocean circulation, we have also calculated how ongoing melting of both polar ice caps will contribute to sea level. Melting ice sheets are already raising sea level, and the process has been accelerating in recent years.
Our research is in agreement with another study published today in terms of the amount that Antarctica might contribute to sea level rise over the present century. This is good news for two reasons.
First, our predictions are lower than one US modelling group predicted in 2016. Instead of nearly a metre of sea level rise from Antarctica by 2100, we predict only 14–15 cm.
Second, the agreement between the two studies and also with previous projections from the IPCC and other modelling groups suggests there is a growing consensus, which provides greater certainty for planners. But the regional pattern of sea level rise is uneven, and islands in the southwest Pacific will most likely experience nearly 1.5 times the amount of sea level rise that will affect New Zealand.
While some countries, including New Zealand, are making progress on developing laws and policies for a transition towards a low-carbon future, globally, policy is lagging far behind the science.
The predictions we make in our studies underline the increasingly urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It might be hard to see how our own individual actions can save polar ice caps from significant melting. But by making individual choices that are environmentally sustainable, we can persuade politicians and companies of the desire for urgent action to protect the world for future generations.
Discover the Southern Ocean’s ecological richness and significance for global climate in this article.
Antarctica tipping points (another The Conversation article) looks at the irreversible changes we could be facing if we fail to keep global warming below 2℃.
The article Climate models explains how models are created and how they have become more accurate over the years.
Use these Hub resources to learn more about melting ice and potential impacts. The resources, and many more, are curated in an interactive planning pathway using climate change resources.
The authors of this article included a number of links to related research papers and articles.
The Paris Agreement brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change.
The land ice contribution to sea level during the satellite era is an assessment and synthesis of results to produce an estimate of land ice mass trends.
Marine ice sheet collapse potentially under way for the Thwaites Glacier Basin, West Antarctica explores tipping points in Antarctic ice sheets.
Sea level rise due to Antarctic ice melt has ‘tripled over past five years’ explains how Antarctica has become one of the largest contributors to sea level rise.
Visit the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment website to learn more about the Zero Carbon Bill.
This article was written by Nick Golledge, Associate Professor of Glaciology at Victoria University of Wellington. Nick receives funding from the Royal Society Te Apārangi and the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment.