Glaciers And Sea Level

Sea level is currently rising at about 1.8 mm (0.07 inch) per year. Between 0.3 and 0.7 mm (0.01 to 0.03 inch) per year has been attributed to thermal expansion of ocean water, and most of the remainder is thought to be caused by the melting of glaciers and ice sheets on land. There is concern that the rate in sea-level rise may increase markedly in the future owing to global warming. Unfortunately, the state of the mass balance of the ice on the Earth is poorly known, so the exact contributions of the different ice masses to rising sea level is difficult to analyze. The mountain (small) glaciers of the world are thought to be contributing 0.2 to 0.4 mm (0.01 to 0.02 inch) per year to the rise. Yet the Greenland Ice Sheet is thought to be close to balance, the status of the Antarctic Ice Sheet is uncertain, and, although the floating ice shelves and glaciers may be in a state of negative balance, the melting of floating ice should not cause sea level to rise, and the grounded portions of the ice sheets seem to be growing. Thus, the cause of sea-level rise is still not well understood.

With global warming, the melting of mountain glaciers will certainly increase, although this process is limited: the total volume of small glaciers is equivalent to only about 0.6 metre (2 feet) of sea-level rise. Melting of the marginal areas of the Greenland Ice Sheet will likely occur under global warming conditions, and this will be accompanied by the drawing down of the inland ice and increased calving of icebergs; yet these effects may be counterbalanced to some extent by increased snow precipitation on the inland ice. The Antarctic Ice Sheet, on the other hand, may actually serve as a buffer to rising sea level. Increased melting of the marginal areas will probably be exceeded by increased snow accumulation due to the warmer air (which holds more moisture) and decreased sea ice (bringing moisture closer to the ice sheet). Modeling studies that predict sea-level rise up to the time of the doubling of greenhouse gas concentrations (i.e., concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and certain other gases) about the year 2050 suggest a modest rise of about 0.3 metre (1 foot).

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