DATE: December 18, 2018
SNIP: Some 125,000 years ago, during the last brief warm period between ice ages, Earth was awash. Temperatures during this time, called the Eemian, were barely higher than in today’s greenhouse-warmed world. Yet proxy records show sea levels were 6 to 9 meters higher than they are today, drowning huge swaths of what is now dry land.
Scientists have now identified the source of all that water: a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Glaciologists worry about the present-day stability of this formidable ice mass. Its base lies below sea level, at risk of being undermined by warming ocean waters, and glaciers fringing it are retreating fast. The discovery, teased out of a sediment core and reported last week at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C., validates those concerns, providing evidence that the ice sheet disappeared in the recent geological past under climate conditions similar to today’s.
If the finding holds up, the world may need to prepare for sea level to rise farther and faster than expected: Once the ancient ice sheet collapse got going, some records suggest, ocean waters rose as fast as some 2.5 meters per century.