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May 18, 2017

We went to Antarctica to understand how changes to its vast ice sheet

might affect the world. How the ice is moving:

Ice sheets flow downhill, seemingly in slow motion. Mountains funnel the
ice into glaciers. And ice flowing from the land into the sea can form a
floating ice shelf.

Glaciers in certain areas have been undercut by warmer ocean waters, and
the flow of ice is getting faster and faster.

This is the first of three dispatches from a New York Times reporting
trip to Antarctica.

THE ACCELERATION is making some scientists fear that Antarcticas ice

sheet may have entered the early stages of an unstoppable disintegration.

Because the collapse of vulnerable parts of the ice sheet could raise the
sea level dramatically, the continued existence of the worlds great
coastal cities Miami, New York, Shanghai and many more is tied to
Antarcticas fate.

Four New York Times journalists joined a Columbia University team in

Antarctica late last year to fly across the worlds largest chunk of
floating ice in an American military cargo plane loaded with the latest
scientific gear.

Inside the cargo hold, an engineer with a shock of white hair directed
younger scientists as they threw switches. Gravity meters jumped to life.
Radar pulses and laser beams fired toward the ice below.

On computer screens inside the plane, in ghostly traces of data, the

broad white surface of the Ross Ice Shelf began to yield the secrets
hiding beneath.

We are 9,000 miles from New York, said the white-haired engineer,
Nicholas Frearson of Columbia. But we are connected by the ocean.
Nicholas Frearson, at left, in the cargo hold.

A rapid disintegration 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 used to regard that scenario as fit only for Hollywood
disaster scripts. But these days, they cannot rule it out with any great

Yet as they try to determine how serious the situation is, the scientists
confront a frustrating lack of information.
Recent computer forecasts suggest that if greenhouse gas emissions
continue at a high level, parts of Antarctica could break up rapidly,
causing the ocean to rise six feet or more by the end of this century.
That is double the maximum increase that an international climate panel
projected only four years ago.

But those computer forecasts were described as crude even by the

researchers who created them. We could be decades too fast, or decades
too slow, said one of them, Robert M. DeConto of the University of
Massachusetts, Amherst. There are still some really big question marks
about the trajectory of future climate around Antarctica.

Alarmed by the warning signs that parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet
are becoming unstable, American and British scientific agencies are
joining forces to get better measurements in the main trouble spots. The
effort could cost more than $25 million and might not produce clearer
answers about the fate of the ice until the early 2020s.

For scientists working in Antarctica, the situation has become a race

against time.

Even as the threat from global warming comes into sharper focus, these
scientists understand that political leaders and cities already feeling
the effects of a rising sea need clearer forecasts about the
consequences of emissions. That urgent need for insight has led
scientists from Columbia to spend the past two Antarctic summers flying
over the Ross Ice Shelf, a floating chunk of ice larger than California.

The Ross shelf helps to slow the flow of land ice from Antarctica into
the ocean. Compared with other parts of Antarctica, the shelf seems
stable now, but computer forecasts suggest that it might be vulnerable to
rapid collapse in the next few decades.

The project to map the structure and depth of the ice shelf in detail,
funded by American taxpayers through the National Science Foundation,
puts Columbia and its partner institutions on the front lines of one of
the worlds most urgent scientific and political problems.

Our goal is to understand how to predict whats going to happen to the

ice sheets, said Robin E. Bell, the lead Columbia scientist in charge of
the effort. We really dont know right now.

Remote as Antarctica may seem, every person in the world who gets into a
car, eats a steak or boards an airplane is contributing to the emissions
that put the frozen continent at risk. If those emissions continue
unchecked and the world is allowed to heat up enough, scientists have no
doubt that large parts of Antarctica will melt into the sea.

But they do not know exactly what the trigger temperature might be, or
whether the recent acceleration of the ice means that Earth has already
reached it. The question confronting society, said Richard B. Alley, a
climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, is easier to ask than
to answer:
How hot is too hot?

In the immersive video below, a military cargo plane flies over the edge
of the Ross Ice Shelf. The orange and gray pod beneath the window will
map the structure of the shelf with radar, a laser and other sensors.


Antarctic Dispatches is a three-part series from the seventh continent.

Written by Justin Gillis. Maps and graphics by Derek Watkins and Jeremy
White. Photographs by Jonathan Corum. Video by Evan Grothjan and Graham
Roberts. Additional production by Gregor Aisch, Larry Buchanan and Rumsey
Taylor. Experience what its like above and below the Antarctic ice
in virtual reality, or read the story behind our reporting trip.