ESA's CryoSat data: Antarctica's ice sheet shrinking faster than ever


May 19, 2014

An artists impression of the ESA's CryoSat satellite (Image: ESA)

An artists impression of the ESA's CryoSat satellite (Image: ESA)

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An analysis of data from the European Space Agency's (ESA) CryoSat satellite shows that ice loss in the Antarctic is increasing at an exponential rate. It is estimated that the polar region now loses 159 billion tonnes of ice each year, with the worst instances of degradation located in the Western area of the Amundsen Sea.

The CryoSat satellite has been designed to take precise measurements of Earth's polar regions in an attempt to further understand how climate change is affecting these remote, yet vital, areas of our planet. The satellite is equipped with a Synthetic Aperture Interferometric Radar Altimeter (SIRAL), an instrument used to measure ice sheet elevation with a high degree of accuracy. SIRAL collects these readings by sending pulses (at an interval of around 50 microseconds) down to the surface, then collecting echoes of those pulses to determine the elevation of the ice sheets.

The UK-based Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling analyzed data collected over three years (by nearly continuous surveillance) from CryoSat, to create the world's first comprehensive assessment of elevation change in the Antarctic ice sheets. Results of the analysis found that ice loss in the polar region was 31 percent greater than that of the previous period of observation (from 2005-2011), with substantial thinning of the ice in the Amundsen Sea area of West Antarctica.

Recent observations of Antarctica suggest as much as 159 billion tonnes of ice is lost each year (Image: CPOM/Leeds/ESA)

“Although we are fortunate to now have, in CryoSat, a routine capability to monitor the polar ice sheets, the increased thinning we have detected in West Antarctica is a worrying development,” states Prof. Andrew Shepherd, leader of the study. He continues, “It adds concrete evidence that dramatic changes are under way in this part of our planet. The challenge is to use this evidence to test and improve the predictive skill of climate models.”

The implications of these findings have the potential to be devastating in the long term, as ice loss standing as a leading contributor to rising sea levels. A significant increase in the global sea level has the potential to put coastal cities, such as Venice, Italy, at serious risk. ESA's researchers estimate that the loss of ice over the last three years alone has been substantial enough to raise the global sea-level by around 0.45 mm (.018 in) every year.

The findings of the UK Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling are available in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Source: ESA

About the Author
Anthony Wood Anthony is a recent law school graduate who also has a degree in Ancient History, for some reason or another. Residing in the UK, Anthony has had a passion about anything space orientated from a young age and finds it baffling that we have yet to colonize the moon. When not writing he can be found watching American football and growing out his magnificent beard. All articles by Anthony Wood

So is this loss after the 35 year high?

How about sea level rise? It been rising since the last ice age and accelerating before the age of AGW but now that acceleration is slowing down...

Nothing to see here folks.

Rann Xeroxx

hmmm ... the picture seems to show that 99% of the Antarctic is not losing ice at all ... the odd thing is Antarctic sea ice has grown to record levels this year ... this picture is of the land ice ... which is as much as 15,000 feet thick in places and averages over 6,000 feet thick ... so how long would it take to melt (if it is indeed melting) to disappear at 2 meters per year across the entire continent ? hmmm ... 1,000 years ...

I guess not much math being taught in law school and ancient history these days ...

I am curious how global warming is melting this ice ... the average temperature of the Antarctic is - 50 F ... wouldn't it need to warm up about 80 degrees before it could melt ice ?

also Antarctic temperatures have been going down for several years so why is the ice melting ? hmm, I wonder if there might be some volcanic activity, you know, under the ice ...


Back in the 1970,s the climate scientist idiots predicted an coming ice age. Remember this?.....


JeffC, you are not supposed to say sensible things like that, the global warming priesthood will get all upset.

The other thing that is not talked about very much is the Antarctic Vortex that helps to keep the cold in.


@JeffC I found some data on your claim here:

It looks like the Antarctic is gain sea ice... but losing land ice. Based on the that link land ice is being lost at a rate faster than sea ice mass is being gained. It's also important to note that land ice doesn't contribute to sea level rise to the extent that sea level ice does. That website estimates an overall sea level rise of 0.19 mm/yr.

This new article (which is newer data) estimates sea level rise from the ice at 0.45 mm/year.

Also a quick check of Wikipedia on Climate_of_Antarctica: "Along the Antarctic Peninsula, temperatures as high as 15°C (59°F) have been recorded" so temps do reach above freezing.

I did see once source that confirmed that Antarctic temps were dropping recently. The famous hole in the ozone layer was above the Antarctic and is known to be shrinking now. I can't tell you why land ice continues to be melting despite a dropping average temperatures. Sea ice could be attributed to something more dynamic like change in ocean currents.



"so how long would it take to melt"

There's no necessity for the ice to "melt" in order to change the sea level. In recent times there have been reports of large areas of ice calving from glaciers and floating in the ocean. Once the ice is floating freely it displaces its maximum amount of water.

In an experiment you CAN do at home, fill a glass with water until it overflows. Place an ice cube in the water, which will then further flow over the edge of the glass. But as the ice melts, there is no further overflow, showing that the ice displaces its mass in water, not volume, which is why there is ice above the water surface.

So although the Antarctic ice may be growing in thickness, it can still be responsible for raising the sea level, as a small amount of melt water will flow under the glaciers and lubricate the system, causing the ice to flow more quickly and calve icebergs. (This phenomenon was observed during the Icelandic volcanic eruption several years ago.)



Strangely enough climate scientists have thought of that and already given explanations:

Sea Ice may be increasing, but Land Ice is disappearing at an alarming rate. If I drop an ice cream on the pavement it spreads out before melting completely, having a larger surface area doesn't mean the ice cream is AOK.

Also, the entirety of Antarctica doesn't have to melt before sea levels start to rise.

Finally the ice is melting because the oceans are warming. "The land ice loss from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is not due to surface melting, as the summer temperatures in Antarctica are generally always below freezing, and measured changes in precipitation cannot explain it either. Instead, the melting is occurring due to warm ocean water melting the land ice around its edges, resulting in a spreading of this ice loss inland:" Which would explain the image above showing melting around the edges.

Finally finally, please stop posting on this, you're not helping anyone.

Justin Doyle

For goodness sakes Lumpy, I don't even have to open another site to debunk that one:

Do us a favour next time and check that site before you post anything that's already been thoroughly debunked.

Justin Doyle

The entire topic is moot.

It's a plain and simple impossibility to convince 7.2++ billion people to radically change their lifestyle - for developed peoples to stop making stuff, for developing peoples to stop cooking, and for all of us to stop reproducing. Quibble, if you will, over percentages, but we're not even the sole warming cause anyhow.

We think we can change the world. We live in all manner of dumb places. Only our arrogance exceeds our stupidity. What is even the point of measuring ice, when we're powerless to change anything? Scratch-that - my hat goes off to the geeks who scammed an awesome expedition to cool places at taxpayer expense :-)


This is just global warming propaganda. Antarctica is Cooling/Gaining Ice. Quit listening to these lying fools.


A billion more people and 4.5mm more sea every ten years. Think I might buy a houseboat.


@christopher I remember watching An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 talking about how we had ~6 year to make drastic changes or the effects of global warming would be irreversible. My thoughts at the time sort of mirrored yours "If that's true it's already too late".

I don't think anyone is going to convince all of society to give up their lives, move out of cities, and go back to more simple lives like Amish. That isn't the same thing as ignoring all responsibility and global warming isn't the only impact to the environment.

Why not make at least some effort to aim for personal energy efficiency? On costs alone LED's are worth it financially and they have the added benefit of needing to burn less coal into the atmosphere to power your home.

Why not improve efficiency of automobiles? It saves you money at the gas pump and leads to cleaner air to breath. There are still people that deny global warming but nobody denies air pollution. The middle east has been a hotbed of conflict and war for thousands of years. If not for dependency on that region for oil would we be as involved militarily? Military spending alone is almost twice as much of my income as my mortgage.


I read that the ozone hole about the antarctic was letting out the heat that could melt the ice. Once it was closed, there was more heat trapped.

I read that the artic is increasing in size. Perhaps it is compensation for the antarctic decreasing in size?

I read that there is a cycle of warming and cooling. I keep wandering how much of an effect man is actually causing and if it is really making a difference.



ESA do not do propaganda, it just rely fact.

Etienne Couritas

Wow. That's incredible. I had no idea the glaciers were not melting before manmade global warming kicked in.


159 billion tons of water melting doesn't see like a lot to me. That would only raise the oceans by 0.00131 feet yearly. That means every 3 years the oceans would raise by 1 human hair..


denier wrote (above): "That means every 3 years the oceans would raise by 1 human hair.. " Wow. I didn't realise that.

denier, could you post your calculations?


We live in an age dominated by science and technology and the internet, of course. I imagine that before long it will not matter what anyone calls themselves, their true identity will be known and available to all.

If that proves to be the case, there are going to be some very unpopular grandparents around when TSHTF time comes, if the above comments are anything to go by. The sad thing is that many reflect a total lack of research into the subject: "They were predicting an ice age in the 70s" has been debunked so many times it is amazing that anyone could still be so ignorant. Just for the record, visit to learn just how much fertiliser is going to hit the ventilating device and how big that device is.

Wake up, people, it might not be too late, yet! Or roll over and give in as some above seem to think is the brave way to go about fixing the problem. If I didn't have children, I too would be tempted to walk away and say to myself "On your own heads be it." I just wouldn't be so lippy about it, though.

Mel Tisdale

While I don't doubt global warming is happening, I am getting more upset by those who are capitalizing on it while doing little to solve it. Instead of making quantum leaps toward the solutions, they want to keep scaring us and inch toward solutions as they extract every possible dollar along the way. Economical Smart cars were kept out of the U.S. market for years on the pretext of safety but of course you could buy a motorcycle or an overpriced $30-40k hybrid. Economical clean diesel has been around for years but is just now beginning to make an overpriced entrance. Our leaders want us to keep buying expensive gas models that only inch up at 1-2 mpg per new model. My point is that global warming isn't being solved as much as it is being milked for maximum profit.


@Bob said "I am getting more upset by those who are capitalizing on it while doing little to solve it. Instead of making quantum leaps toward the solutions"

There is a lot wrong this this. It's the nature of technology and human advancement in general that improvements tend to be more evolutionary than revolutionary with a few important breakthroughs along the way. It's difficult at this point for major breakthroughs in efficiency of internal combustion engines. Hybrid is a breakthrough in efficiency but you complained about them being expensive. Wikipedia says the first Prius (1997) was sold at $16,929 but probably cost $32,000 to produce. That price would have been $24k adjusted for inflation in 2014 and today they sell one for $19k that gets 53/46 city/hwy.

I think that meets your "Economical Smart car" requirement it also passes modern safety standards so you aren't in a popcan on wheels. Next up, if quantum leaps were easy they would happen more often. You act like its some kind of conspiracy and "they" are holding out from releasing breakthroughs that are easy to achieve then why not get involved? If one person made a significant breakthrough in battery technology that was inexpensive and as big of an improvement over lithium ion as lithium ion was to lead acid it would change the world over night.

If that's easy to do you could probably figure out how in a year or 2 of research, patent the applicable technologies, and become the worlds first trillionaire. You probably shouldn't waste any time getting started.

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