Antarctic changes could become tipping points with global implications, says report

The Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is seen in this undated NASA image. This week’s report from the British Antarctic Survey says Antarctic ice shelves are important tipping elements. (NASA/Handout/Reuter)

Global warming is inciting dramatic changes in Antarctica, with potential for “irreversible and self-sustaining changes” to the continent’s ice sheet, said a report published Thursday on the British Antarctic Survey website.

“Crossing Antarctic tipping points will have huge implications for global sea level, and for future carbon emissions and fisheries,” the report said.

“The global impacts highlight the urgency for global action, by all nations together, to cut carbon emissions and maintain Antarctica as a stable, ice-covered continent.”

The report looked at the results of several recent studies documenting the long-term decline of ice shelves, the withdrawal of glaciers in Western Antarctica, heatwaves and changes in the Southern Ocean. 

Potential tipping point triggers

Among the changes the report’s authors flagged as potentially triggering tipping points include:

  • slowing of Southern Ocean circulation by approximately 30% in some parts because of the reduction of sea ice, and melt from the Antarctic ice sheet
  • heatwave events
  • record low of Antarctic sea ice extent in 2022 and 2023

“These Antarctic heat extremes, and Southern Ocean circulation and sea-ice cover changes, are not necessarily tipping points,” the report said.

“However, on the back of global warming, these type of changes are important. At some threshold, they will push Antarctic tipping elements, including vulnerable ice shelves and glaciers, across one or more tipping points.”

Ice shelves

The report describes ice shelves as important stabilizing elements for the Antarctic ice sheet.

But they can also weaken and collapse when temperatures are untypically warm, causing them to thin and detach from the seabed.

“There is clear potential for irreversible and self-sustaining changes in the ice shelves and glaciers of the Antarctic ice sheet,” the report said.

“Indeed, it may be that we are already witnessing the beginning of these changes, in the recent ice-shelf losses and rapid retreat of glaciers in West Antarctica.”

A file photo of ice floating near the coast of West Antarctica in 2016. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“Although the behaviour of ice shelves varies across Antarctica, once collapsed, recovery of the ice shelf is not possible until the ocean cools sufficiently,” the report said.

“This in unlikely to occur for at least some centuries.”

Report same week as U.N. body calls for more focus on cryosphere

The report comes the same week that the World Meteorological Organization called for cryosphere changes to be put at the top of the global agenda and for the international community to close knowledge gaps on the regions through improved data sharing, increased funding and better coordinated observations, predictions and services.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: “Our climate is changing before our eyes,” says WMO upon release of new report, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland: Climate change accelerating ice loss from peripheral glaciers, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Unusually warm April weather, sunshine records in northern Finland, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: High risk of wildfires in many parts of Sweden, including North, Radio Sweden

United States: Bering Sea ice at lowest extent in at least 5,500 years, study says, Alaska Public Media

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

Do you want to report an error or a typo? Click here!

Leave a Reply

Note: By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that Radio Canada International has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Radio Canada International does not endorse any of the views posted. Your comments will be pre-moderated and published if they meet netiquette guidelines.
Netiquette »

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *