PASADENA, Calif. – An international team of experts supported by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) has combined data from multiple satellites and aircraft to produce the most comprehensive and accurate assessment to date of ice sheet losses in Greenland and Antarctica and their contributions to sea level rise.
In a landmark study published Thursday in the journal Science, 47 researchers from 26 laboratories report the combined rate of melting for the ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica has increased during the last 20 years. Together, these ice sheets are losing more than three times as much ice each year (equivalent to sea level rise of 0.04 inches or 0.95 millimeters) as they were in the 1990s (equivalent to 0.01 inches or 0.27 millimeters). About two-thirds of the loss is coming from Greenland, with the rest from Antarctica.
From the abstract of the paper:
We combined an ensemble of satellite altimetry, interferometry, and gravimetry data sets using common geographical regions, time intervals, and models of surface mass balance and glacial isostatic adjustment to estimate the mass balance of Earth’s polar ice sheets. We find that there is good agreement between different satellite methods—especially in Greenland and West Antarctica—and that combining satellite data sets leads to greater certainty. Between 1992 and 2011, the ice sheets of Greenland, East Antarctica, West Antarctica, and the Antarctic Peninsula changed in mass by –142 ± 49, +14 ± 43, –65 ± 26, and –20 ± 14 gigatonnes year−1, respectively. Since 1992, the polar ice sheets have contributed, on average, 0.59 ± 0.20 millimeter year−1 to the rate of global sea-level rise.
The melting since about 1992 to the present has contributed to about 0.44 inches of sea level rise (about a fifth of the sea level rise over that period, and there was sea level rise prior to 1992 as well). The main outcome of this study is to clean up the predictions from previous models with much better data and to narrow down the best predictions for future melting. Also, the pace of ice loss now is greater than it was at the beginning of the study period, 20 years ago. Greenland is losing ice about 500% faster now than it was in the early 1990s, while Antarctica is losing ice at about the same rate now as it was then.
UPDATE: See also this post from the LA Times
Shepherd, A., Ivins, E., A, G., Barletta, V., Bentley, M., Bettadpur, S., Briggs, K., Bromwich, D., Forsberg, R., Galin, N., Horwath, M., Jacobs, S., Joughin, I., King, M., Lenaerts, J., Li, J., Ligtenberg, S., Luckman, A., Luthcke, S., McMillan, M., Meister, R., Milne, G., Mouginot, J., Muir, A., Nicolas, J., Paden, J., Payne, A., Pritchard, H., Rignot, E., Rott, H., Sorensen, L., Scambos, T., Scheuchl, B., Schrama, E., Smith, B., Sundal, A., van Angelen, J., van de Berg, W., van den Broeke, M., Vaughan, D., Velicogna, I., Wahr, J., Whitehouse, P., Wingham, D., Yi, D., Young, D., & Zwally, H. (2012). A Reconciled Estimate of Ice-Sheet Mass Balance Science, 338 (6111), 1183-1189 DOI: 10.1126/science.1228102
Photo of icebergs in Disko Bay, Greenland from NASA