Antarctica has way fewer rocky outcroppings than scientists previously estimated, according to a new study that found less than half a percent of the South Pole is not covered by snow and ice.
The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) found “a 21,745 km2 total area of rock outcrop, equivalent to 0.18 ± 0.05% of the continent’s land area and 48% of the previous estimate.” Previous estimates put rocky outcroppings at 0.37 percent of the continent.
“This is a significant decrease and highlights an overestimation in the current predictions of rock outcrop extent in Antarctica,” BAS scientists wrote in their new study.
BAS researchers wanted to establish a more accurate baseline to measure how global warming impacts the frozen continent. Unsurprisingly, Antarctica still has tons of snow and only small areas of it aren’t covered with ice and snow.
Scientists have hotly debated how global warming impacts the South Pole in recent years. NASA says Antarctica is losing more than 134 gigatons of ice every year, which is what most environmentalists use when talking about future sea level rise.
But a 2015 NASA study found Antarctica actually added 82 billion tons of ice a year from 2003 and 2008, directly contradicting data presented by NASA and the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“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,” Jay Zwally, a glaciologist at NASA, said 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.
Antarctica also saw record high levels of sea ice throughout 2014, but some scientists postulated it was from increased ice melt from land-based ice. Scientists are still unsure of how to explain the South Pole’s resistance to rising global temperatures.
Zwally’s research found Antarctica gained 112 billion tons of ice per year from 1992 to 2001 and 82 billion tons of ice per year from 2003 and 2008. Eastern Antarctica gained 200 billion tons of ice per year from 1992 to 2008. outweighing ice losses from western Antarctica totalling 65 billion tons per year.
If Zwally’s results stand up to scrutiny, it means the south pole is actually contributing to sea level declines, not sea level rises.
“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.”
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