Research News

In new study, many scientists speak with one voice on Antarctic ice loss

Summer clouds swirl in around the Staccato Peaks of Alexander Island, Antarctic Peninsula.

Summer clouds swirl in around the Staccato Peaks of Alexander Island, Antarctic Peninsula. High snowfall and strong weather gradients in this mountainous area make assessment of glacier mass balance particularly challenging. Photo: Hamish Pritchard, BAS


Published June 14, 2018 This content is archived.

headshot of Beata Csatho.
“Scientists are really now speaking with one voice, and we hope that it will help the public understand the problem. ”
Beata Csatho, professor and chair
Department of Geology

How is the Antarctic ice sheet changing in a warming world?

A new study that answers this question is significant in part because it represents many of the leading scientists in the field speaking with one voice on this important issue, says UB ice sheet researcher Beata Csatho.

The Antarctic ice sheet “is clearly losing mass,” says Csatho, chair of the Department of Geology in the College of Arts and Sciences and a member of a large international team that conducted the research. “Scientists are really now speaking with one voice, and we hope that it will help the public understand the problem.”

The study, published today in Nature, finds that ice losses from Antarctica have increased average global sea level by about 7.6 millimeters between 1992 and 2017. The research also sheds light on the pace of the ice sheet's decline, and how different sections of the ice sheet are behaving.

The results come from a major climate assessment known as the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE). Led by Professor Andrew Shepherd at the University of Leeds and researcher Erik Ivins at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the project was supported by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA.

Csatho is one of 84 scientists from 44 international organizations who combined data from 24 estimates of ice sheet mass balance to produce the results.

The Antarctic ice sheet is the largest single body of ice on Earth. It holds enough frozen water to raise global sea level by about 58 meters (about 190 feet), so the future of the ice sheet is hugely important for island nations and coastal communities grappling with climate change.

The June 14 study in Nature provides the most comprehensive picture to date of how Antarctica has changed since 1992, and should help put an end to questions of whether the ice sheet is gaining or losing mass, Csatho says. The findings show clearly that the Antarctic ice sheet has shrunk over the past quarter century, she says.

The research also highlights the critical importance of data-collection tools such as NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) and Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, Csatho says. Observations from these and other systems were used to complete the study.

Csatho’s contribution to the assessment included working with former UB PhD graduate and postdoctoral researcher Greg Babonis to analyze data from ICESat, which operated from 2003 to 2009.

Csatho currently is involved with preparations for ICESat-2, a new NASA satellite that is expected to launch this year. Like the original ICESat, ICESat-2 will enable detailed measurements of the elevation of ice sheets and glaciers.

“These observations are very important to our understanding of sea level rise because whatever is melting, whatever ice is lost, is going into the ocean,” Csatho says. “Having detailed observations is important because sea level rise is not happening uniformly everywhere. Understanding how the ice is lost in different parts of Antarctica will help us understand how sea level may rise in different places of the Earth.”

Csatho is a member of the Department of Geology’s growing climate change research group. The department has four tenure-track faculty members who study ice sheets and glaciers — a relatively large group for glaciology. These UB scientists use satellites to monitor ice sheets, do field studies in the Arctic and employ numerical modeling to understand ice sheets and glaciers.

Graph showing the Antarctic Ice Sheet's contribution to global sea level.

Graph: IMBIE/Planetary Visions