Time to pay attention: The melting of the Totten glacier could raise global sea level by more than 3 meters

Scientists have warned that if all of Totten Glacier’s ice ended up in the ocean, global sea level would rise by at least 3.5 meters.

With the potential to cause sea levels to rise by more than 3 meters if it melted off entirely, and capable of freeing huge amounts of ice from the East Antarctic layer, the giant Totten Glacier has earned the nickname “the sleeping giant.”

Now, scientists have discovered that the strong winds of the area are “waking up” the Totten, and it’s not good news for the rest of the world.

A study by scientists at the University of Texas, published this week in the journal Science Advanced, has concluded that the largest glacier in East Antarctica is melting from below.

Experts note how the extreme force of the winds, which have greatly increased due to climate change, are transporting warm waters from the ocean depths to the Antarctic coastline.

“The work offers evidence of the mechanistic connection in the transmission of heat from the atmosphere across the ocean to the ice sheet,” the authors wrote in a statement.

Once these waters reach the coast, they begin to circulate under the floating part of the glacier, causing the base that keeps it anchored to weaken.

The Totten glacier is one of the largest in Antarctica, with an area equivalent to the state of California. Image Credit

“It’s as if you were blowing over a bowl of soup, making the noodles from the bottom emerge onto the surface,” explains the study’s lead author, Chad Greene.

Between 2001 and 2006, the appearance of water of a few degrees warmer caused the ice in the entire Antarctic area to begin moving towards the sea 5% faster than usual, the study said.

What appear to be minor changes, are actually indications of melting in Antarctica, which until now was considered more stable.

Experts fear that these processes will intensify in later years.

In fact, the destabilization of Totten, and the consequent rise in sea level, will not be a sudden process and its consequences will not be noticeable in decades, Greene reassures.

Other very unstable glaciers found in western Antarctica cause more concern to scientists in the short term, he says.

However, when the big one goes, we will surely notice the difference as sea water is expected to rise.

“We have little data on the ocean and ice shelf conditions in this region,” says Fernando Paolo, a geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“But the 14-year record used in the study is still somewhat short to infer a definitive link between wind-driven upwelling and ice shelf melt, he says.”

“Still,” he adds, “these new data are a welcome addition to the pool of sparse observations, supporting the idea that Totten Glacier is very sensitive to changing oceanic conditions, much like the fast-thinning glaciers in West Antarctica.”


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