Antarctic winds to accelerate rise in sea levels

While science has long resigned itself to the fact that global sea levels will rise, new research from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science (ARCCSS) brings even more bad news: Changes in Antarctic wind patterns may cause sea levels to rise even faster than initially estimated.

“When we included projected Antarctic wind shifts in a detailed global ocean model, we found water up to 4°C warmer than current temperatures rose up to meet the base of the Antarctic ice shelves,” said lead author Dr Paul Spence from ARCCSS.

Changes in the wind patterns have already been blamed for southern Australia’s rapidly drying climate. That 4°C figure is no small thing, either: The researchers say it’s on average twice as warm as previously estimated. Positioned so close to the coastal areas, the warmer waters could have a huge impact on ice sheet melt and global sea levels.

Though prior research had focused on ocean temperatures over large areas, the new study examined the impacts of changing winds on currents down to 700m around the coastline, which is unprecedented. They found that the changing Antarctic coastal winds (due to climate change) could have an even bigger impact on sea levels than even the temperature of the ocean itself.

“When we first saw the results it was quite a shock. It was one of the few cases where I hoped the science was wrong,” Dr Spence said.

Even the researchers are amazed at how easy it is for climate change to affect the temperatures near the ice sheets. They fear that the ice sheets, already in peril, may be even less stable than previously believed.

“Dramatic rises in sea level are almost inevitable if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at the current rate,” said Dr Nicolas Jourdain from ARCCSS.