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Antarctica is melting faster than ever. Here’s what we can do about it

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By Nigel Topping, Helen Millman, Martin Siegert

· 5 min read

For generations, Antarctica stood as the harshest of continents that could defeat the hardiest of men, remaining a pristine and mysterious place isolated from the rest of the planet. But today, we are seeing that even this remote and inhospitable continent is far from immune to the effects of human-induced climate change. In fact, it is one of the fastest warming parts of the world, with serious consequences for us all.

Antarctica is losing a staggering 150 billion tons of glacier ice a year, and this rate of ice loss is accelerating. The main cause is ocean warming, which not only melts the ice sheet directly but also thins the floating ice shelves that hold the ice sheet on land. As the ice shelves lose strength, they allow more ice to flow into the sea, raising the sea level.

The sea ice that surrounds the continent has been shrinking since 2016. This winter’s maximum sea ice extent was 1.75 million km2 below the 1981-2010 average, which means that an area the size of Libya was effectively missing.

The air above Antarctica is also heating up, causing surface melting that can trigger the collapse of ice shelves. In March 2022, East Antarctica was hit by the most extreme heatwave ever recorded on Earth, with temperatures soaring 38℃ above normal. If this heatwave had occurred in the summer, temperatures above melting point would have been reached in the coldest place on the planet for the first time.

The shape of the land under the ice affects its vulnerability. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which could raise global sea level by over three metres, depends on the Thwaites Glacier’s stability. This part of the ice sheet rests on a downward-sloping submarine bed, making it prone to irreversible retreat.

Global impacts

The far-reaching implications of Antarctic ice melt encompass a broad spectrum of global environmental and climatic repercussions. The most obvious impact is the rise of global sea level, which threatens hundreds of millions of people living in coastal areas around the world. Even a few centimetres of sea level rise can increase the risk of flooding, erosion, storm surges and saltwater intrusion, damaging homes, infrastructure and farmland. A 2020 study found that a global mean sea level rise of one metre by 2100 would cause annual flood damages to increase by two to three orders of magnitude, affecting up to 20.3% of global GDP. However, this may be an underestimation as we cannot rule out two metres of global mean sea level rise by 2100.

The loss of Antarctic ice poses a significant threat to our planet’s climate system, as it can set off a feedback loop that exacerbates global warming. As the sea ice in the Antarctic region diminishes, it unveils larger stretches of open water. The darker water absorbs a greater amount of solar radiation, trapping more heat within the Earth’s system. The Arctic has been exhibiting such change since the 1970s, and if the Antarctic is starting to behave like the Arctic, both polar regions would act to accelerate further warming.

Antarctic melt also threatens the disruption of ocean circulation, which carries heat and nutrients around the world. As the ice sheet melts, it dilutes the seawater with fresh water, making it less dense and less likely to sink. This could slow down the great conveyor belt that drives global ocean circulation, changing nutrient distribution, global weather patterns and threatening food security.

The solutions

Some sea level rise from Antarctica is now inevitable, but we can still avoid the worst impacts by urgently cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The Sharm El-Sheikh Implementation plan, adopted at COP27, recognized the impacts of climate change on the cryosphere. Negotiations at COP28 need to build on this momentum and recognize that limiting global warming to 1.5C is a physical necessity to prevent the irreversible collapse of West Antarctica. Therefore, we must rule out any possibility of reaching 2C of warming, which would be catastrophic for both Antarctica and the rest of the world.

We can achieve this by triggering positive tipping points for societal change. These are rapid shifts in human behaviour, technology, policy or markets that can lead to large-scale transformations that reduce emissions and enhance resilience. Powerful tipping points are reached when new clean technologies reach cost parity with old polluting alternatives.

Figure 1. Renewable energy is projected to overtake fossil fuels by 2030

Renewable energy is projected to overtake fossil fuels by 2030

Source: RMI

The deployment of new technologies follows a well-known pattern of “S curves” of exponential uptake. The more we make something, the better we get at it and costs fall in a predictable way, leading to accelerating growth in deployment of the new technology. Models show that renewable energy is growing exponentially and is projected to provide over one-third of global electricity by 2030 and overtake fossil fuels.

Similarly, EVs are becoming more affordable and accessible, thanks to the rapid drop in battery costs and the growth of charging infrastructure. They are also much cheaper to run than combustion engine cars, as they have lower maintenance and fuel costs. These factors are driving the exponential uptake of EVs and reducing the emissions from the transport sector, with the market share of EVs projected to reach between 62% and 86% of global sales by 2030, eliminating the need for between 5 and 10 million barrels of oil per day.

This pattern of growth is likely to be followed in sector after sector but to sustain momentum, we need innovators to solve the challenges that arise along the way. Whether through boosting demand via the First Movers Coalition, driving early investment via the Mission Possible Partnership, or collaborating to create the right policy conditions via the Breakthrough Agenda, we need ambitious goals and cross-sector partnerships to drive transformations. COP28 is an opportunity to strengthen alliances and ensure that all sectors are moving at the speed and scale required to protect not only Antarctica but our own future.

This article is also published on the World Economic Forum. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Nigel Topping is cofounder of AmbitionLoop, a not-for-profit organization working to facilitate systemic change through radical collaboration between businesses and governments. He served as the UN Climate Change High-Level Champion for COP26, where he launched global initiatives like Race To Zero and Race To Resilience. He is a Non-Executive Director of the UK Infrastructure Bank and business champion on the UK Climate Change Committee. Nigel was awarded a CMG in 2022 in Queen Elizabeth II's final honours list for his contribution to accelerating action on climate change.

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Dr. Helen Millman is a glaciologist and climate scientist. As the Hoffmann Fellow for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, she works with Arctic Basecamp, the World Economic Forum and the University of Exeter to foster cooperation between society, science and technology in support of the poles in crisis.

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Martin Siegert is Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Exeter, where he is responsible for the strategic development of Exeter's activities in Cornwall, and supporting the 2030 target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in both the University and the County. Martin is a glaciologist, involved in the scientific exploration of Antarctica and leading the UK's participation in a series of geophysical programmes that have charted around 40% of the subglacial environment across the continent.

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