Ice Sheet Processes Could Potentially Lead to Abrupt Changes

In addition to rapid accelerations in the rate of sea level rise, a collapse or rapid wastage of major ice sheets could lead to other abrupt changes. For example, if the Greenland ice sheet were to shrink substantially over several decades, a large amount of freshwater would be delivered to key regions of the North Atlantic. This influx of freshwater could alter the ocean structure and influence ocean circulation, with implications for regional and global weather patterns. Compelling evidence has been assembled indicating that rapid freshwater discharges at the end of the last ice age caused abrupt ocean circulation changes, which in turn led to significant impacts on regional climate. The recent ice melting on Greenland and other areas in the Arctic, combined with increased river discharges in the Arctic region (see discussion of precipitation and runoff changes below), may have already led to changes in ocean circulation patterns. However, much work remains to develop confident projections of future ocean circulation changes—and the influence of these changes on regional climate patterns—resulting from ongoing freshwater discharges in the North Atlantic.

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