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Aug 14, 2014 04:24 PM EDT

Antarctic Melt Could Accelerate Sea Level Rise, Up to 37 Centimeters Within the Century

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Ice discharge in Antarctica could raise sea level faster than previously thought, according to a recent study.

An international team of scientists found that ice discharge from the southernmost continent could contribute up to 37 centimeters to the global sea level rise within this century. The results reproduce Antarctica's recent contribution to sea level rise as observed by satellites in the last two decades and show that the ice continent could become the largest contributor to sea level rise much sooner than previously thought.

"If greenhouse gases continue to rise as before, ice discharge from Antarctica could raise the global ocean by an additional 1 to 37 centimeters in this century already," Anders Levermann, lead author of the study, said in a statement. "Now this is a big range -- which is exactly why we call it a risk: Science needs to be clear about the uncertainty, so that decision makers at the coast and in coastal megacities like Shanghai or New York can consider the potential implications in their planning processes."

For the study, researchers analyzed how rising global mean temperatures resulted in a warming of the ocean around Antarctica, thus influencing the melting of the Antarctic ice shelves. Researchers said that the computed projections for this century's sea level contribution are significantly higher than the latest projections from the Institute for Climate Impact Research, on the upper end. Even in a scenario of strict climate policies limiting global warming in line with the 2°C target, the contribution of Antarctica to global sea level rise covers a range of 0 to 23 centimeters.

While Antarctica currently contributes less than 10 percent to global sea level rise and is a minor contributor compared to the thermal expansion of the warming oceans and melting mountain glaciers, it is Greenland and especially the Antarctic ice sheets with their huge volume of ice that are expected to be the major contributors to future long-term sea level rise.

According to researchers, the marine ice sheets in West Antarctica alone have the potential to elevate sea level by several meters -- over several centuries. 

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