West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse – the fall and rise of a paradigm
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It is now almost 30 years since John Mercer (1978) first presented the idea that climate change could eventually cause a rapid deglaciation, or “collapse,” of a large part of the West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS), raising world sea levels by 5 m and causing untold economic and social impacts. This idea, apparently simple and scientifically plausible, created a vision of the future, sufficiently alarming that it became a paradigm for a generation of researchers and provided an icon for the green movement. Through the 1990s, however, a lack of observational evidence for ongoing retreat in WAIS and improved understanding of the complex dynamics of ice streams meant that estimates of likelihood of collapse seemed to be diminishing. In the last few years, however, satellite studies over the relatively inaccessible Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica have shown clear evidence of ice sheet retreat showing all the features that might have been predicted for emergent collapse. These studies are re-invigorating the paradigm, albeit in a modified form, and debate about the future stability of WAIS. Since much of WAIS appears to be unchanging, it may, no longer be reasonable to suggest there is an imminent threat of a 5-m rise in sea level resulting from complete collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, but there is strong evidence that the Amundsen Sea embayment is changing rapidly. This area alone, contains the potential to raise sea level by around ~1.5 m, but more importantly it seems likely that it could, alter rapidly enough, to make a significant addition to the rate of sea-level rise over coming two centuries. Furthermore, a plausible connection between contemporary climate change and the fate of the ice sheet appears to be developing. The return of the paradigm presents a dilemma for policy-makers, and establishes a renewed set of priorities for the glaciological community. In particular, we must establish whether the hypothesized instability in WAIS is real, or simply an oversimplification resulting from inadequate understanding of the feedbacks that allow ice sheets to achieve equilibrium: and whether there is any likelihood that contemporary climate change could initiate collapse.
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