Out There On The Ice: An Intimate View Of The Melting Antarctic Sheet

May 14, 2014
Originally published on May 16, 2014 1:00 pm

Two groups of scientists have reported that the melting of the giant West Antarctica Ice Sheet appears to be unstoppable. Oceans could rise several feet in the coming centuries because of its melting. Glaciologist Sridhar Anandakrishnan has devoted his scientific life to those Antarctic glaciers, studying them for nearly three decades, and he comments on the recent news.

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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. The projections on sea level rise from the eventual collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet are alarming. Scientists say oceans could rise from four to 15 feet with the disintegration of that ice sheet. That's the conclusion of two reports released on Monday. Researchers say the melting is unstoppable and past the point of no return.

We wanted to hear from someone who has devoted his scientific life to those Antarctic glaciers and so I'm joined by glaciologist Sridhar Anandakrishnan. He's a professor of geosciences at Penn State University. Welcome to the program.

SRIDHAR ANANDAKRISHNAN: Thank you, Melissa. It's my pleasure to be here.

BLOCK: And I gather you have been going to Antarctica over the last 30 years and in particular you have spent time on this ice sheet that we're talking about, the West Antarctic ice sheet.

ANANDAKRISHNAN: I have. I went down to Antarctica for the first time in 1985, so nearly 30 years. And I've spent a great deal of time on the West Antarctic ice sheet.

BLOCK: How rare a thing is that, to have been in that spot?

ANANDAKRISHNAN: I have to say I feel privileged. There have been a handful, quite literally maybe 20, 30, 50 people who've been in some of the places and some of the places I've been I was perhaps the first person there, which is very, very exciting indeed.

BLOCK: Well, for those of us who haven't been out there, can you describe what it's like? What it looks like, what it feels like?

ANANDAKRISHNAN: It's extraordinarily quiet and can be scary because you're looking out at this expanse of white and you look around and you say, gosh, there's nobody for maybe 500 miles in any direction. Which is a rare thing to happen when you're standing on land.

BLOCK: Hmm. And the landscape, that expansive white, what do you see in that expanse?

ANANDAKRISHNAN: It's really a remarkably beautiful surface because the snow crystals land on the surface and they're like little bits of diamond. So they sparkle and glint and you have all these wonderful shapes that the snow carves into the surface. And then the sky is just this vast expanse of blue or white. It's really an extraordinarily beautiful place.

BLOCK: When you think about the Antarctica that you saw when you first went some 30 years ago and compare it with what you see when you land now, is any of the change that we're talking about visible to the naked eye? Or is it just stuff that you see through your scientific measurements?

ANANDAKRISHNAN: For the most part, it's really through the scientific measurements. The ice in Antarctica has sped up and started to thin in a lot of places but it isn't apparent to the naked eye. That is only the case in a select part of the Antarctic called the Antarctic Peninsula and there are a number of ice shelves. These are floating masses of ice that have melted and disappeared over the last 20 or 30 years.

But in the main part of the West Antarctic and in the East Antarctic the changes are not that apparent except to these sophisticated measuring devices.

BLOCK: You know, I'm picturing you out there in your tent on the West Antarctic ice sheet, Professor Anandakrishnan, and I wonder if it's possible for you to project forward however many centuries it might be and think about the fact that that place where you are won't exist anymore.

ANANDAKRISHNAN: It is completely impossible because it is so huge that you imagine that it is forever unchanging. And it is a glacier. And things move at, as we all know, glacial paces. But not in this case. These glaciers are doing things they were, quote/unquote "not supposed to do." They're speeding up, they're changing, they're thinning, they're dumping their load of ice into the oceans.

And so things are happening there that when I began my career we thought would not be happening in our lifetimes and perhaps for a long, long time after. But the effects of warming are apparent down there too.

BLOCK: Well, Professor Anandakrishnan, thanks so much for being with us. We appreciate it.

ANANDAKRISHNAN: Oh, you're quite welcome. It's been my pleasure.

BLOCK: That's glaciologist Sridhar Anandakrishnan. He's a professor at geosciences at Penn State University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.