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Worried about rising oceans? It’s happening and we can’t stop it

In the climate change-apocalypse disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow, the planet turns on itself rather quickly. Dennis Quaid plays a scientist and the hero of the film. The UN ignores his warning that things are going to get bad soon. When the proverbial shit hits the fan, he has to survive instant-freezing bursts and deep snow to rescue his son (aka Jake Gyllenhaal) and his girlfriend (every movie needs a love story).

Then there are the battles with infections and escaped wolves (they manage to escape the extreme cold) in a resoundingly silly film. The reviews for The Day After Tomorrow are not too good. That’s because the movie is plain bad and the danger of climate change feels preachy when it is depicted in such an extreme manner.

Ten years later, the movie still stinks, but it might have been closer to the truth about the looming problems caused by climate change.

Tornadoes everywhere, in The Day After Tomorrow!

New reports indicate that the large parts of the ice sheet in West Antarctica are collapsing. As a result, the global sea level will slowly rise over the few centuries (200 to 900 years) by more than 10 feet. The warnings of coastal cities covered in water might just happen.

Here comes the kicker. The oceans are rising and there may be nothing we can do to slow down the progress.

“The collapse of this sector of West Antarctica appears to be unstoppable,” said glaciologist and lead author of one of the studies Eric Rignot, of UC Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“The fact that the retreat is happening simultaneously over a large sector suggests it was triggered by a common cause, such as an increase in the amount of ocean heat beneath the floating sections of the glaciers. At this point, the end of this sector appears to be inevitable.”

The two papers are set to be released in the scientific journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters. In the first paper, Rignot and his colleagues studied the glaciers in West Antarctica by using satellite imaging. They observed a continued pace of recession in the glaciers observed. For example, the Smith/Kohler glaciers experienced 35 kilometers in recession since 1992. Most concerning is the fact that they find no evidence that something can be done to slow down the ice melt.

The second research paper relies on computer modeling. Researchers from the University of Washington determined that ice melt has accelerated since the 1990’s, a similar finding to that of the first paper. They predict that the Thwaites Glacier will completely disappear in the coming centuries, causing the global sea level to rise by close to 2 feet, alone. It’s demise could trigger the speedier melt of the Antarctic ice sheet.

Waters will rise by as much as 13 feet if the complete ice sheet melts, say the scientists. The news is just as bad as the first paper: slowing down progress is nearly impossible.

“Previously, when we saw thinning we didn’t necessarily know whether the glacier could slow down later, spontaneously or through some feedback,” said lead author Ian Joughin, a glaciologist at the University of Washington. “In our model simulations it looks like all the feedbacks tend to point toward it actually accelerating over time; there’s no real stabilizing mechanism we can see.”

The findings are the latest call for people to take climate change more seriously.

“It’s bad news. It’s a game changer,” said Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, to the AP. “We thought we had a while to wait and see. We’ve started down a process that we always said was the biggest worry and biggest risk from West Antarctica.”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.