At first blush, the two might appear to be at loggerheads. Instead, researchers suggest, the two highlight how, as on other continents, the intensity of global warming's impact at the bottom of the world depends on location, location, location. And both point to the challenge researchers still face in forecasting the future of the continent's ice chest in a warming climate.
Each in its own way "provides guidance on projecting the future of sea-level rise," notes Richard Alley, a glaciologist at Penn State University in University Park, Pa., who was not a participant in either study.
Researchers have a keen interest in trying to understand and project ice losses in Antarctica, as well as on Greenland, with global warming. Previous studies have shown that since 1992, the loss of ice from polar caps is raising sea levels by an average of about 0.59 millimeters a year.
The West Antarctic Ice Sheet alone could boost sea levels an average of 10 feet if it melts – an increase that would occur over hundreds to thousands of years, notes Eric Steig, a researcher at the University of Washington who led one of the two research efforts.
Between 1992 and 2011, the peninsula lost ice at rate of 20 billion tons a year, according to a study published last November in the journal Science. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet lost 65 billion tons a year, and the East Antarctic Ice Sheet – the continent's largest – lost 14 billion tons a year, although the uncertainties in that number are so large the loss could just as well have been nothing.