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  • 23-May-09 The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) and Sea-Level Rise
  • SEPP Science Editorial #15-2009
    (in TWTW May 23, 2009)

    Guest Editor

    The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) and Sea-Level Rise

    May 23, 2009

    Guest Editorial by Thomas Sheahen tsheahen@alum.mit.edu
    Ref.: J.L. Bamber et al, Science v. 324, pp 901- 903 (15 May 2009).

    The topic is of interest because the WAIS has been known to collapse in the past, most recently maybe about 400,000 years ago. The main thing the Science paper does is re-calculate with more accurate input data what had first been published in 1975, when less was known of the surface features.. Parts of the WAIS are on bedrock that is beneath sea level and parts are elevated above sea level.

    The "region of interest" eligible for collapse is smaller than earlier supposed. The old estimate of maximum sea level rise was about 6 meters; the new calculation gives a maximum of 3.2 m.

    The sea level rise that is actually expected is about 1.8 m -- based on taking ice on certain places in Antarctica and having it melt into the ocean. To pursue that point, you have to go to the online supplemental material and look at tables and figures there. There are a few points of interest to those who pay attention to the political spin of Science:

    First, the 1.8 m expected value appears in one sentence, never in the abstract, which talks about the maximum value.

    Second, much is made of the notion that the coasts of America will experience a sea-level rise about 25% higher than global average. This is because the earth's axis of rotation will change a little due to redistribution of mass when the ice leaves its present position.

    Third, an associated "Perspectives" article (p. 888-889) goes to considerable length to paint the picture as gloomy as possible, emphasizing all that could go wrong. Without mentioning the 1.8-m figure buried within the Bamber et al paper, the Perspectives article asserts that "....just 0.5 to 1.0 m of uniform sea-level rise will cause catastrophic geopolitical and economic devastation in many urbanized coastal settings." It also says things like "The time scale of the fully manifested instability cannot currently be predicted." Clearly, this permits alarmists to go right on insisting that inundation of cities is imminent, while previous estimates visualized WAIS survival for several millennia (assuming that the present Holocene persists that long).

    Finally, remember that the Hansen-Al Gore-ism of "20 feet" is a vestige of the 1975 calculation, now laid to rest.

    View The Week That Was in which this editorial appeared.

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