A huge Antarctic glacier is melting at rates fast enough to raise global sea levels, said British physicist Andrew Shepherd on Thursday, February 1, 2001. The Pine Island Glacier, which is the largest glacier in West Antarctica, may be afloat in 600 years if it keeps thawing at the present rate, the team said.

“(Eventually) what would happen is the fast-flowing section of glacier would become afloat,” Shepherd said. “It would be a large ice shelf and would contribute about 6 mm (a quarter of an inch) to global sea level, which isn’t much ... I think the people in Florida are OK for now. We don’t have any evidence to suggest change of climate,” Shepherd said. “This was not part of our research. This could be due to a variety of causes,” he added.

Researchers say large chunks are breaking off of Antarctica for several reasons, some due to global warming. For example, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) has been steadily melting since the end of the last ice age. But human-induced global warming can speed the process. The WAIS contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by 5 feet to 18 feet (1.5 to 5.5 meters) if it melted.

Shepherd and colleagues used satellite measurements to check how thick the ice was and how quickly it was moving between 1992 and 1999.

“This is a really remote area of Antarctica,” Shepherd said. “There are no weather stations, no real-time data. All we can do is remotely sense what is happening. Over the past eight years the same area has been thinning at the same rate. The pattern has not spread anywhere else,” Shepherd said. We have monitored the change for the first time and it is important for us now to continue to model it,” he said.

So far, melting polar ice has so far not contributed significantly to the rising seas. Prevailing views hold that it could be between 100 and 1,000 years before enough polar ice melts to significantly affect sea levels.

Quotes taken from a Reuters news report.