A new study, published April 30, 2020, in Science, used an advanced Earth-observing laser instrument aboard a satellite to make precise, detailed measurements of how the elevation of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have changed between 2003 and 2019.
The study results show that small gains of ice in East Antarctica are dwarfed by massive losses in West Antarctica. According to the scientists, the net loss of ice from Antarctica, along with Greenland’s shrinking ice sheet, has been responsible for 0.55 inches (14 millimeters) of sea level rise between 2003 and 2019 – slightly less than a third of the total amount of sea level rise observed in the world’s oceans.
The study found that Greenland’s ice sheet lost an average of 200 gigatons of ice per year, and Antarctica’s ice sheet lost an average of 118 gigatons of ice per year.
How much ice is that? One gigaton of ice is enough to fill 400,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools or cover New York’s Central Park in ice more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) thick, reaching higher than the Chrysler Building.
The new data comes from what NASA describes as its most advanced Earth-observing laser instrument ever flown in space:
ICESat-2’s instrument is a laser altimeter, which sends 10,000 pulses of light a second down to Earth’s surface, and times how long it takes to return to the satellite – to within a billionth of a second. The instrument’s pulse rate allows for a dense map of measurement over the ice sheet; its high precision allows scientists to determine how much an ice sheet changes over a year to within an inch.
The researchers took tracks of earlier ICESat measurements and overlaid the tracks of ICESat-2 measurements from 2019, and took data from the tens of millions of sites where the two data sets intersected. That gave them the elevation change, but to get to how much ice has been lost, the researchers developed a new model to convert volume change to mass change. The model calculated densities across the ice sheets to allow the total mass loss to be calculated.
If you watch a glacier or ice sheet for a month, or a year, you’re not going to learn much about what the climate is doing to it. We now have a 16-year span between ICESat and ICESat-2 and can be much more confident that the changes we’re seeing in the ice have to do with the long-term changes in the climate.
Bottom line: New maps made using satellite data show 16 years of ice sheet loss on Antarctic and Greenland.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.