Antartica

This Is What Antarctica Will Look Like After We've Melted It

We'd better get acquainted with the new, ice-free Antarctica. Thankfully, a bunch of scientists just figured out exactly what that looks like
March 24, 2017, 10:00am

This article originally appeared on Motherboard.

Antarctica, the globe's black sheep 7th continent, is approximately 98% covered in ice. But in our 400 ppm world, that won't always be the case—thanks to planetary warming, in coming years we're going to see that percentage begin to tick down drastically. British and Australian climatologists have confirmed that summer ice melt in Antarctica is now ten times as intense as it was 600 years ago—the melt is now happening faster than it has at any point over the last 1,000 years.

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Meanwhile, worldwide, humans aren't reining in greenhouse gas emissions one bit, so that warming's just going to continue to accelerate. Which means it's more important than ever to possess in-depth knowledge of what Antarctica will look like as it sheds its ice. How much cover does it actually have? How much will the melt contribute to sea level rise?

This is precisely why the British Antarctic Survey has spent the last decade using millions of satellite measurements to build the most detailed model yet of what the southernmost continent looks like underneath all that ice. Called Bedmap2, it's an exponentially more detailed model than its predecessor.

Here's a NASA-guided tour of the resulting product, which is incredibly meticulous in its attention to detail:

Some of the findings that resulted from Bedmap2 surprised the scientists. For instance, the volume of ice in Antarctica is actually 4.6% greater than previously thought. That also means that there's more ice that's prone to rapid melting, and more ice that can leech into the sea to raise the water levels worldwide.

In total, Bedmap2 reveals that if all of Antarctica's permanent ice melted, it would lead to 58 meters, or 190 feet, of sea level rise. That's adios, New York City.

A couple other interesting facts gleaned from the ice-free Antarctic survey:

  • The mean bed depth of Antarctica, at 95 meters (311 feet), is 60 meters (196 feet) lower than estimated
  • The volume of ice that is grounded with a bed below sea level is 23% greater than originally thought meaning there is a larger volume of ice that is susceptible to rapid melting. The ice that rests just below sea level is vulnerable to warming from ocean currents
  • The new deepest point, under Byrd Glacier, is around 400 meters (1,312 feet) deeper than the previously identified deepest point

Currently, that deepest point is covered in ice—nearly two miles thick. But, with more carbon dioxide trapped in the atmosphere than there has been in about 3 million years, that ice isn't likely to stay put.

It's fascinating to look at BAS's rendering of an ice-free Antarctica—and kind of terrifying to consider that it's only a matter of time before parts of the continent more resemble their model than the ice-covered mass that we've all kind of just assumed would always be the freezing, inhospitable sole of the planet.