Engines break down as a military cargo plane sliced through the frigid air, making straight for the world’s largest floating ice.
Antarctica, an immense, frozen land, is hiding much floating ice. Some scientists began to think that nothing less than the fate of human civilisation may hang on unravelling those mysteries.
Many people regard Antarctica as unchanging. But the ice moves from the land to the sea, billions of tons every year, and has done so for.
Today the ice in parts of Antarctica seems to be accelerating. Some glaciers have been destabilised by warmer ocean waters. Scientists fear that parts of the ice sheet may be in the early stages of an unstoppable disintegration.
Because the breakup of parts of the ice sheet could raise the sea level by many feet, the continued existence of vulnerable cities near the world’s coastlines could depend on what happens here.
A rapid deterioration of Antarctica might, in the worst case, cause the sea to rise so fast that tens of millions of coastal refugees would have to flee inland, potentially straining societies to the breaking point.
Climate scientists once regarded that scenario as fit only for disaster films. Now they cannot rule it out.
Yet as they try to determine how serious the situation is, they confront a frustrating lack of information.
If greenhouse emissions continue at a high level, parts of Antarctica could break up rapidly, causing the sea to rise 6 feet or more by the end of this century — twice the maximum increase that an international climate panel projected four years ago.
Alarmed by signs that parts of the ice sheet are destabilising, the National Science Foundation in Washington and the Natural Environment Research Council in Britain are joining forces to get better measurements in the main trouble spots. The effort could cost over $25 million and take years to yield clearer answers about the fate of the ice.