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Sea level expert from Charleston: ‘I’m more uneasy but not frightened’

Posted on July 17, 2014 by in Place

Rate of melting of West Antarctic ice sheets at Amundsen Bay, Rignot, May 2014

From West Antarctic to Charleston: Map is color-coded to show rates at which ice shelves are  melting. Red marks fastest rate.

There were big and scary headlines in May when researchers said some glaciers in the West Antarctic were melting at an “unstoppable” rate. Some news reports said the Big Melt could raise sea levels — including those in Charleston — by up to 16 feet over time. But the report itself made no such projections. It said in its conclusion: “We conclude that this sector of West Antarctica [at the bay of the Amundsen Sea] is undergoing a marine ice sheet instability that will significantly contribute to sea level rise in decades to centuries to come.”

The doomsday headlines came from taking the report about one sector of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet — at the Amundsen Sea embayment (image above) — and extending it across all the glaciers of the West Antarctic. But the report made no attempt to analyze and draw conclusions about the stability of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet. It was focused on one fraction of thf ice sheet — at the Amundsen Sea embayment..

Local America Charleston went to sea-level expert Gary Mitchum, who grew up in Charleston and is a professor and associate dean in the College of Marine Science at University of South Florida, to get his assessment on what the new report means, especially for Prof. Gary Mitchum, USFCharleston.

You’ve taken a close look at the report. If the glaciers at the Amundsen Sea embayment are melting at an “unstoppable” rate, what will they add to seal levels?

The glaciers are capable of adding¬† four feet to sea levels. That’s on top of currently melting ice in Greenland and the East Antarctic, which will add 2 to 3 feet to sea levels by 2100.

When would the new melt from the West Antarctic start to have an impact on sea levels?

It would start kicking in over a couple hundred years.

Can man do anything to avoid coastal areas being swamped by sea levels rising up to 7 feet (your outside estimate)?

We can flatten the curve through aggressive programs to mitigate the effects of manmade climate change — reducing carbon emissions, changing human behavior.

What would that mean in the most hopeful scenario?

If we flatten the curve, we can probably expect a couple of feet rise in sea level above the current level over a thousand years. The level will rise, but more slowly.

How do you feel about that prospect?

I’m more uneasy, but not frightened.

The focus has been on rising sea levels. What else can we expect from climate change — here in Charleston as elsewhere?

The intensity of storms will increase. There will be more severe winters — a whole range of adverse climate conditions.


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