The Antarctic will be subjected to a curious phenomenon as the earth starts to warms from climate change — there will be more snow.
Scientists says their study confirms that snow will increase significantly and that this could offset sea level rises from other sources.
However, they say the effect will not be nearly as strong as many previously anticipated.
This means that many computer models may be underestimating the amount and rate of sea level rise if they had projected more significant impact from Antarctic snow.
Results of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation in the US, are reported in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Scientists have long suspected that snowfall in Antarctica increases during global warming and the impact of so much snow on land would have a negative effect on global sea levels.
However, computer models on what should happen during warm periods have not matched observational data, according to Peter Clark, an Oregon State University paleoclimatologist and co-author on the study.
“Intuitively, it makes sense that as it warms and more moisture is in the atmosphere, that it will fall as snow in Antarctica,” Clark said.
“The problem is that we’re not really seeing that through the last 50 years of observations and documenting the relationship between changes in temperature and snow accumulation is difficult to do because of such strong natural variability.”
So Clark and his colleagues looked at ice core data to see what they could learn about the future.
They focused on a period from 21,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago when the Earth gradually came out of the last ice age.
What they found was that Antarctica warmed an average of 5 to 10 degrees Celsius and for every degree of warming there was a 5% increase in snowfall.
“The additional weight of the snow would have increased the ice flow into the ocean offsetting some of the limiting effect on sea level rise,” said Katja Frieler, a climatologist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and the lead author of the study. “It’s basic ice physics.”
A 5% increase in snowfall on Antarctica would mean a drop in sea level of about 3 cm after 100 years.
However, other forces are at play. More warming can cause ice at the Antarctic shore to break off more easily, adding more ice mass to the ocean.
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