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Anna Parini “Virtual” teams—ones made up of people in different physical locations—are on the rise
Destabilization of Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets has the potential to raise global sea level, but sea level would not rise uniformly everywhere.

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Going forward, ice loss in Greenland and Antarctica will have varying effects on Earth's oceans. That is because the ice sheet itself has mass that exerts a gravitational force on the surrounding ocean. A loss of mass from the ice sheet causes nearby ocean levels to fall as the mass and gravity of the ice sheet decreases. However, since overall sea level would rise, the sea level increase in areas far from the ice sheet would be higher than the global average. Consequently, ice sheet contribution to sea level rise—even if it were the same amount—would have different impacts, depending on whether the contribution came from Greenland or Antarctica ().


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Global mass balance data are transformed to sea-level equivalent by first multiplying the ice thickness (meters) lost to melting by the density of ice (about 900 kilograms per cubic meter), to obtain a water equivalent thickness, and then multiplying by the surface area of these "small" glaciers (about 760,000 square kilometers). This provides an annual average mass balance of approximately -0.273 meters for the period 1961 to 2005. When dividing the mass balance value by the surface area of the oceans (361.6 million square kilometers), the final result is 0.58 millimeters of sea level rise per year. The Glacier Contribution to Sea Level graph demonstrates how the contribution from melting glaciers began increasing at a faster rate starting in the 1990s. This is in agreement with high-latitude air temperature records. The IPCC () stated that it was "very likely" (at least 90 percent confidence) that the mean annual global rate of ocean level increase was 1.5 to 1.9 millimeters between 1901 and 2010, 1.7 to 2.3 millimeters between 1971 and 2010, and 2.8 to 3.6 millimeters between 1993 and 2010.

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These studies underscore an important point: Being far away from a melting ice sheet is no source of safety. In fact, the opposite is true. Because of changes in Earth's gravity field resulting from ice sheet mass loss, ocean sea level will actually drop near the areas of melt and rise elsewhere. Miami, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Los Angeles are just a few of the coastal cities that can expect higher sea levels due to faraway ice-sheet melt ().

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Although thermal expansion has been projected to contribute the most to sea level rise, the potential of large contributions from the Antarctic Ice Sheet has added significant uncertainty to predictions. This is the factor responsible for the most of the spread in projected sea level rise by the late 21st century (). A subsequent study incorporated physical processes on that might accelerate ice sheet loss and sea level rise. One process was hydrofracturing, a process where surface water slices through the ice due to its higher density. Another process was marine ice cliff instability, arising from the relative weakness of ice. Ice cliffs more than about 90 meters tall are inherently unstable because ice at earthly temperatures is too weak to support the edifice. Incorporating these processes in some models leads to higher projections of global mean sea level rise by the year 2100: 0.26 to 0.98 meters under RCP 2.6, and 0.93 to 2.43 meters under RCP 8.5. The greater spread between RCPs indicated a greater role for emissions in ice sheet contribution to sea level rise ().

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How much ice sheets will contribute to sea level rise in the coming decades and centuries will depend in a large part on human activity. Representative Concentration Pathways () are scenarios for rates and magnitudes of climate change driven by greenhouse gas emissions. RCP 2.6 assumes low greenhouse gas emissions; RCP 8.5 assumes high greenhouse gas emissions; RCP 4.5 assumes greenhouse gas emissions in between 2.6 and 8.5. A 2014 study estimated global sea level rise—from all sources, not just ice-sheet melt—at 90 percent probability for the 21st century: 0.3 to 0.8 meters under RCP 2.6, 0.4 to 0.9 meters under RCP 4.5, and 0.5 to 1.2 meters under RCP 8.5.