New Study Finds Unprecedented Polar Ice Sheet Loss

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Satellites tell us the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are shrinking at an unprecedented rate.

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This elevation map of Greenland was produced from data collected by the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite. Image Credit: ESA.

The massive ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica are shrinking at an unprecedented rate, according to a new study published in the journal, The Cryosphere. Using data obtained between 2011-2014 from the European Space Agency (ESA) satellite, CryoSat-2, investigators from the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research at Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, determined that the regions lost an average of 120 cubic miles of ice a year ‰ÛÒ more than the total volume of water in Lake Erie. Nearly three-quarters of the loss came from Greenland.

Tracking the volume of the planet’s snow and ice is important for many reasons, including as a way to monitor impacts of climate change such as sea level rise. Like the Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory (GPM) recently featured in Earthzine, CryoSat represents a major advance in cryospheric and climate research.

‰ÛÏThe new elevation maps are snapshots of the current state of the ice sheets,‰Û Veit Helm, lead author of the study, explains. ‰ÛÏThey are very accurate and cover close to 16 million sq. km, which is 500 000 sq. km more ‰ÛÒ about the size of Spain ‰ÛÒ than previous elevation models from altimetry.‰Û

Helm’s team created the elevation maps using 200 million data points from Antarctica and 14.3 million from Greenland. The data were obtained by the Ku-Band Synthetic Aperture Interferometric Radar Altimeter (SIRAL), the CryoSat-2’s core instrument.