Antarctic Pine Island Glacier’s tipping point confirmed by researchers

Researchers from Northumbria University have confirmed that Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica could cross an irreversible tipping point and eventually lead to the collapse of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Such a collapse could raise the sea levels by over three meters.  

Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica is a large ice stream about two-thirds the size of the UK. This glacier is of particular concern as it is the fastest melting glacier and responsible for about 25% of Antarctica’s ice loss. The area it drains represents 10% of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. 

At current levels, Pine Island Glacier, together with the Thwaites glacier, contributes to about 10% of the rise in global sea levels. 

While scientists have argued about such a tipping point for some time, this is the first time researchers from Northumbria’s glaciology research group, using a state-of-the-art ice flow model, have developed methods to identify tipping points within the ice sheets. This research led by Professor Hilmar Gudmundsson investigates if the prevailing climate change drives the Antarctic Ice Sheet towards a tipping point. The findings are published in the journal, The Cryosphere. 

Dr. Sebastian Rosier at Pine Island Glacier in 2015. Image: Dr. Sebastian Rosier

According to the study, the Pine Island Glacier has at least three distinct tipping points. The third and final event that will lead to the irreversible retreat of the glacier will be caused by an increase in ocean temperature by 1.2C. Mixing of warm Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW) with the cold, shallow waters and changing wind patterns in the Amundsen Sea could increase the temperature to these levels where the tipping point becomes inevitable.  

According to Dr. Sebastian Rosier, “The possibility of Pine Island Glacier entering an unstable retreat has been raised before, but this is the first time that this possibility is rigorously established and quantified.” Dr. Rosier is a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow in Northumbria’s Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences and the lead author of this study. 

Dr. Rosier added that this study is a major step towards understanding the dynamics of the Antarctic ice sheets, and now they are finally able to provide answers to this key question.

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