Antarctica Has Gotten Way More Snow In The Last 30 Years

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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British scientists found that Antarctica’s western ice sheet has seen record levels of snowfall in the last 30 years. These findings come just days after U.S. scientists published findings that Antarctica’s ice was growing, not shrinking.

A study published by the British Antarctic Survey found that while the West Antarctic ice sheet has been shrinking in recent decades, 300 years of ice core “records show a dramatic increase in snow accumulation during the twentieth century” due to intensifying storms in the Amundsen Sea Low (ASL) since the beginning of the 20th Century.

“Since the record is 300 years long, we can see that the amount of snow that has been accumulating in this region since the 1990s is the highest we have seen in the last 300 years.  The 20th century increases look unusual,” Elizabeth Thomas, a BAS paleoclimatologist and lead author of the new study, said in a statement.

Ice core data shows that from 1712 to 1899, snowfall along Antarctica’s western coast was steady, averaging between 13 and 16 inches of melted snow each year. But then the region started to accumulate more snow — 30 percent more from 1900 to 2010, according to the BAS. Scientists say that if snowfall continue to intensify in the region, more snow could come down on the continent.

Snow accumulation increased even more in the last 30 years, according to the study. Researchers estimate the South Pole’s western ice sheet gained 16 feet more precipitation than it did during the 1900s. But BAS researchers argue this snowfall is not holding back the collapse of some glaciers in the area.

“In this region, the same storms that have driven increased snowfall inland have brought warmer ocean currents into contact with West Antarctic’s ice shelves, resulting in rapid thinning,” Thomas said.

“Thus the increased snowfall we report here has not led to thickening of the ice sheet, but is in fact another symptom of the changes that are driving contemporary ice sheet loss,” she said, adding that more research needs to be done to see if South Pole is actually losing ice.

The warning that increased snowfall may be driving the western ice sheet melt comes with a caveat: more research needs to be done to find out if Antarctica is losing ice on net.

“We urgently need to understand whether we are losing ice, at what rate, and what is causing this loss in order to make accurate predictions for future change and Antarctica’s contribution to global sea level rise,” Thomas argued.

Interestingly enough, a recent National Aeronautics and Space Administration study found that Antarctica’s ice sheet has been increasing in mass from 1992 to 2008, gaining more ice than is melting off.

“We’re essentially in agreement with other studies that show an increase in ice discharge in the Antarctic Peninsula and the Thwaites and Pine Island region of West Antarctica,” said Jay Zwally, a NASA glaciologist and lead author of the study.

“Our main disagreement is for East Antarctica and the interior of West Antarctica — there, we see an ice gain that exceeds the losses in the other areas,” Zwally said.

NASA’s study contradicted claims made by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that Antarctica was losing ice overall and contributing to global sea level rise.

NASA’s work, however, shows Antarctica has been adding much more ice than it’s shed off, but government scientists still warned that this trend could reverse itself in 20 to 30 years.

“The good news is that Antarctica is not currently contributing to sea level rise, but is taking 0.23 millimeters per year away,” Zwally said. “But this is also bad news. If the 0.27 millimeters per year of sea level rise attributed to Antarctica in the IPCC report is not really coming from Antarctica, there must be some other contribution to sea level rise that is not accounted for.”

Most media coverage on Antarctica has focused on ice loss from Antarctica’s western ice sheet. Scientists argue the Antarctic Peninsula, Thwaites glacier and Pine Island glacier are all collapsing and could cause more sea level rise. Some reports have even warned eastern part of Antarctica is also being threatened by warmer ocean water.

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