Melting of Antarctic Ice Sheet Irreversible

Two separate studies have come to similar conclusions about the melting of Antarctic glaciers: It's going to happen. For sure.


For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today and save 20 percent.

Two separate studies—from NASA and the University of California at Irvine—have both come to the conclusion that the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is now inevitable. Although glacial loss of this magnitude is still centuries away, scientists from both studies used point-of-no-return rhetoric when discussing an event that will dramatically alter the shape of our world’s continents.

Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at the University of California, said, “Today we present observational evidence that a large sector of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has gone into irreversible retreat.”

Although human-caused global warming has contributed to the destabilization of the ice sheet, other factors are also involved. Or, to put it differently, the effect of global warming plays out differently than many might think. Scientists have argued that the melting of Antarctic ice has less to do with warmer air temperatures than with strong winds that pull the relatively warm water from the depths of the ocean around the Antarctic continent toward the surface. Of course, global warming affects the winds in that an increase in average temperature in other parts of the world will increase the difference between the very cold and very warm areas of the planet, which leads to stronger winds.

Another study, published in Science and led by Ian Joughin of the University of Washington, focuses specifically on the Thwaites Glacier in Western Antarctica. The report also deems the glacier’s collapse to be inevitable, with a gradual initial change eventually “giving way” to dramatic acceleration. “All of our simulations show it will retreat at less than a millimeter of sea level rise per year for a couple of hundred years, and then, boom, it just starts to really go,” Joughin said.