New Delhi: A startling new report by NASA scientists suggests that the Antarctic ice sheet may actually be expanding, growing every year, despite a warming globe!
This is in direct conflict to the prevailing notions, which suggested that the ice was melting fast as global warming and climate change was hitting the globe in significant ways.
The NASA study challenges the oft-repeated findings of the United Nation's panel on climate change, the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that forecast a grim future for the melting ice sheets of the Antarctic.
This comes close on the heels of the much-awaited high- octane climate change meeting to be held in Paris later this month where global leaders are expected to come to agreement on limiting carbon emissions.
Has the IPCC erred again and slipped on ice In 2007, the IPCC in it's forth assessment report had grossly gone wrong when it said that the Himalayan glaciers would melt away and disappear by 2035. This was finally 'accepted' as a mistake and the IPCC offered its only 'regret' till date on the faulty and exaggerated melt rate prognosis it had made on the glaciers of the Himalayas.
It seems this global panel of over 2,500 top-notch experts may be tripping once again on 'thin ice'.
In its high profile report called the 'Assessment Report 5' released in 2013 and prepared under the leadership of R K Pachauri who was then chairman of the IPCC it had claimed that the "Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass likely at a larger rate".
Jairam Ramesh, India's former environment minister is very alarmed and says “could this be another Himalayan glacier-type moment for IPCC” I am afraid it might well be.
Climate science is one thing but climate evangelism quite another". Grim prognosis from Jairam who worked steadfastly with Indian glaciologists in 2009 to expose the IPCC's misdeeds on Himalayan glaciers.
The controversial NASA study has been published this week in the highly respected 'Journal of Glaciology' and it finds that the 'Antarctic ice sheet showed a net gain of 112 billion tons of ice a year from 1992 to 2001'.
This means that instead of steadily melting due to global warming the cold icy continent of Antarctica actually accumulated about 1,000 billion tonnes of ice in the nine-year period of the study.
Another separate research published this week finds that the annual snow accumulation on West Antarctica's coastal ice sheet increased dramatically during the 20th century, according to a paper published in the American Geophysical Union journal Geophysical Research Letters.
"Since the record is 300 years long, we can see that the amount of snow that has been accumulating in this region since the 1990s is the highest we have seen in the last 300 years. The 20th century increases look unusual," said Elizabeth Thomas, a paleo-climatologist with the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, UK, and lead author of the study.
Using ice cores, the team finds that the annual snow accumulation increased in the early 20th century, rising 30 per cent between 1900 and 2010. The study's authors found that in the last 30 years of the study, the ice sheet gained nearly 5 m more water than it did during the first 30 years of the studied time period.
A release from NASA said "an increase in Antarctic snow accumulation that began 10,000 years ago is currently adding enough ice to the continent to outweigh the increased losses from its thinning glaciers. The research challenges the conclusions of other studies, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) 2013 report, which says that Antarctica is overall losing land ice." Though it admits that the "net gain slowed to 82 billion tons of ice per year between 2003 and 2008".
"We're essentially in agreement with other studies that show an increase in ice discharge in the Antarctic Peninsula and the Thwaites and Pine Island region of West Antarctica," said Jay Zwally, a glaciologist with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, US and lead author of the study.
"Our main disagreement is for East Antarctica and the interior of West Antarctica - there, we see an ice gain that exceeds the losses in the other areas." Zwally added that his team "measured small height changes over large areas, as well as the large changes observed over smaller areas".
Just before the last landmark conference on climate change that was held at Copenhagen in 2009, the so called 'Himalaya gate' had hit the headlines and had put the global environment community on a back foot that had used the melting of the Himalayan glaciers as an iconic example of the disastrous consequences of climate change. In fact, at that time when the Himalayan glacier error exploded on the front pages, Pachauri had famously called it 'voodoo science'. However, India's then environment minister Ramesh had stood his ground and had called the 'IPCC alarmist'! In fact, Jairam came out a winner in that round.
The 2013 assessment the IPCC has predicted that sea levels would rise by almost a metre by 2100. Nevertheless, this new finding by NASA puts a question mark on that forecast.
"The good news is that Antarctica is not currently contributing to sea level rise, but is taking 0.23 millimetres per year away," Zwally said.
When reached, the IPCC said they had no "formal statement" on this Antarctic ice sheet issue.
Jonathan Lynn, Head, Communications and Media Relations for IPCC said, "The IPCC assesses scientific, technological and socio-economic information available by certain cut-off dates in order to provide policymakers with information on the state of scientific knowledge relevant to climate change. The IPCC does not conduct its own research.
The recent NASA findings were not published at the time the IPCC was producing the Fifth Assessment Report and so will probably be included in the Sixth Assessment cycle."
"Yes", the ice sheet has been expanding in the time period of the NASA study concurs Anil Kulkarni, a researcher on glaciers and ice masses at the Center for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru adding that "this is a possible error in source" but defends the IPCC's estimate of the global sea level rise. Kulkarni feels "as snow takes long time to convert into ice in Antarctica" the contrarian findings can be explained.
According to the NASA release "the extra snowfall that began 10,000 years ago has been slowly accumulating on the ice sheet and compacting into solid ice over millennia, thickening the ice in East Antarctica and the interior of West Antarctica by an average of 1.7 centimetres per year.
This small thickening, sustained over thousands of years and spread over the vast expanse of these sectors of Antarctica, corresponds to a very large gain of ice - enough to outweigh the losses from fast-flowing glaciers in other parts of the continent and reduce global sea level rise".
Zwally's team calculated that the mass gain from the thickening of East Antarctica remained steady from 1992 to 2008 at 200 billion tons per year, while the ice losses from the coastal regions of West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula increased by 65 billion tonnes per year.
"We know that there is a big difference between the Arctic and the Antarctic.
Arctic sea ice has been decreasing rapidly," explains Professor J Srinivasan Chairman Divecha Centre for Climate Change, Indian Institute of Science, who defends the IPCC saying they had indicated that the "estimates for Antarctica were not robust enough".
Zwally said, "But this is also bad news. If the 0.27 millimetres per year of sea level rise attributed to Antarctica in the IPCC report is not really coming from Antarctica, there must be some other contribution to sea level rise that is not accounted for."
These conflicting signals from high profile and credible scientists only confuse the public on this important issue of climate change that the humanity is confronting.
When scientists can't agree how can one expect policy makers to come to an agreement that affects and stems the future economic growth of nations.