The holidays have not been kind to Antarctica — and not just because the North Pole is the one getting all the attention during this time of year. Preliminary evidence from weather modeling performed by scientists at the University of Liège in Belgium suggests that the southern-most continent on Earth suffered from a significant ice melt on December 24. It could be the worst such event on record if the models hold true and could mean that Antarctica is in for a brutal couple months — as if the ice-covered landmass hasn't already been through enough at the hands of climate change.
Ice melt is not uncommon this time of year in the Antarctic, as this is summertime down near the south pole. From around mid-November — just before summer starts — until its end in February, there is at least some surface-level ice melt expected to occur. Typically, it peaks at about eight percent melt on any given day. But this year, things have veered toward the extreme. Scientists have found that melt levels have been well above the average for every single day since late November. This trend was capped off on the day before Christmas when Antarctica saw 16 percent of its icy surface melt down. The amount of ice lost just that day would equate to a landmass about the size of Denmark.
This certainly isn't the first time the Antarctic has suffered loss of ice, but the situation down there is getting increasingly disconcerting. Some levels of surface ice melt are perfectly fine and aren't entirely lost, as it will eventually refreeze and form a new layer of ice. But the amount of ice currently melting away could cause issues for other ice across Antarctica. When too much ice has melted down, the resulting water starts to pool on the surface and fill into cracks within the ice, which can result in fracturing the ice, pushing it apart. This issue has already taken hold across the continent, triggering ice-shelf collapses. Nowhere has it been worse than on the Antarctic Peninsula, where climate change has already taken a significant toll. Researchers have found the region is already seeing its ice thickness and volume start to shrink and the region is projected to experience the greatest increases in pooled melt water in coming years.
Antarctica is not alone in experiencing these new, climbing levels of ice melt and the fallout that it carries. The same situation has been playing out in Greenland and the results are not promising. A warmer than average spring and summer resulted in Greenland experiencing its seventh-worst melting season on record. Unfortunately, five of the other top seven all occurred within the last two decades, suggesting the situation is ongoing and the direct result of human-caused climate change as our planet's temperature continues to climb. In 2019 alone, Greenland experienced a melt loss area of 10.9 million square miles, including a new record for single-day ice loss in the region. Greenland's ice loss has been one of the primary contributors to the global sea level rise, and it has been getting more significant in recent years. According to NASA, ice melt from Greenland resulted in 0.09 millimeter per year increase in ocean levels between 1992 and 2001. During the last two decades, during which the ice melt has increased significantly on the island, its contribution has skyrocketed to 0.59 millimeters per year — a more than 650 percent increase over its prior levels. The ice loss in Greenland is exceeding what scientists predicted, suggesting ocean levels could start rising faster than we expected as well.
None of this is good news, not just for these icy regions of the planet for but the rest of us as well. Rising sea levels present a number of significant complications for people across the globe, starting with simply making less of the planet livable as water starts creeping up shorelines. That's going to be a problem, because hundreds of millions of people live near these rising oceans. That means many people could be faced with permanent displacement from their homes in the coming decades. A study published earlier this year found that as many as 300 million people could be affected by these rising tides by 2050, and as many as 630 million may be forced to move by 2100. Even if we pick up the slack and manage to bring our carbon emissions to a halt in a timely manner, as many as 150 million people are still likely to be pushed inland come 250 — a significant amount of movement that will present new challenges for regions that try to accommodate this level of migration.
With the constant level of ice melt occurring on the planet's biggest glaciers, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) project that even if we manage to take drastic action and curb climate change to the best of our ability, we're looking at about an eight-inch rise in ocean waters by 2100. However, that would be a drastic improvement over the worst-case scenario, in which we stay on the course we are currently on and allow the glaciers to continue to the point of complete degradation. In that case, we could see sea levels rise by as much as 6.6 feet, according to the government agency. With any sort of rise in ocean levels, many communities around the world will experience fallout beyond just moving populations. The new levels of water could flood wetlands with destructive and erosive saltwater that can contaminate soil and ruin agricultural efforts. It can also be harmful to native populations of brids, plants and animals who will see their natural habitats flooded and destroyed. Additionally, with ocean weather events like hurricanes and typhoons moving slower and getting stronger because of the increased temperature of the planet, storm surges from these disasters are likely to get stronger as well. With higher ocean levels, that means storm surges will be larger than before, pushing more water inland and causing more damage to communities in its way.
The Antarctic summer is almost over, so ice melt may begin to slow soon — but we shouldn't count on that being any sort of solution. The natural ebbs and flows of these regions and their typical cycles have been disrupted by human-caused climate change and our insistence on polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Until we kick our reliance on these fossil fuels, these extremes will continue, and we are increasingly approaching the point where the devastating outcomes of our behaviors will affect us soon rather than later.