The world has lost 28 trillion metric tons of ice between 1994 and 2017, which would be enough to cover the United Kingdom in a block of ice 100 meters thick, according to a research paper published in the journal the Cryosphere.
The melt rate accelerated by 65% over this period, beginning at 0.8 trillion tons per year and ending at 1.3 trillion tons per year. This means that global ice loss now matches worst-case scenario predictions.
“The ice sheets are now following the worst-case climate warming scenarios set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” Dr. Thomas Slater, the lead author of the paper and a research fellow at Leeds’ Center for Polar Observation and Modeling, said in a press release. “Sea-level rise on this scale will have very serious impacts on coastal communities this century.”
The researchers estimate that sea levels rose by 35 millimeters during this time. In the years ahead, sea level rise will continue to swallow coastlines, supercharge tropical storms, and displace communities. The report notes that for every centimeter of ice loss, roughly 1 million people are in danger of being displaced.
Atmospheric warming accounts for roughly two-thirds of ice loss discussed in the paper, while ocean warming accounts for the rest.
The ocean has absorbed approximately 90% of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution. In recent years, the level of heat absorbed is equivalent to five Hiroshima bombs exploding in the ocean every second.
The researchers noted that floating ice in the polar regions accounted for the majority of ice loss, while glaciers lost around 6 trillion tons of ice.
Glaciers have been shrinking all around the world, from the Himalayas to Bolivia. Billions of people around the world rely on glaciers for drinking water. As glaciers disappear, vital water supplies are vanishing.
Marine feedback loops are accelerating the rate of loss. Ice reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere. But when it melts, it often reveals darker water underneath, which absorbs sunlight and heat, causing more ice to melt.
Greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide linger in the atmosphere for decades, locking in temperature rise for a long time to come. As a result, it’s all but guaranteed that ice loss will continue to accelerate, potentially reaching catastrophic levels.
In fact, the polar regions are warming at a far faster rate than the rest of the world.
The most effective way to mitigate the crisis is by stopping greenhouse gas emissions. Since the global economy currently runs on fossil fuels, new economic models will have to be developed. Otherwise, the world’s ice reserves will keep shrinking.