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Global warming 5 mn years ago raised sea levels by 20m: Study

July 22, 2013 17:42 IST

Global warming 5 mn years ago raised sea levels by 20m: Study

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Global warming five million years ago may have caused parts of Antarctica's large ice sheets to melt and sea levels to rise by approximately 20 metres, a new study has claimed.

The researchers, from the Imperial College London, and their academic partners studied mud samples to learn about ancient melting of the east Antarctic ice sheet.

They discovered that melting took place repeatedly between five and three million years ago, during a geological period called Pliocene Epoch, which may have caused sea levels to rise approximately 10 metres.

Scientists have previously known that the ice sheets of west Antarctica and Greenland partially melted around the same time. The team said that this may have caused sea levels to rise by a total of 20 metres.

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Image: Two Adelie penguins rest on the shores of Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica
Photographs: Pauline Askin/Reuters

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Global warming 5 mn years ago raised sea levels by 20m: Study

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Understanding this glacial melting during the Pliocene Epoch may give us insights into how sea levels could rise as a consequence of current global warming, experts said.

This is because the Pliocene Epoch had carbon dioxide concentrations similar to now and global temperatures comparable to those predicted for the end of this century.

"The Pliocene Epoch had temperatures that were two or three degrees higher than today and similar atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to today," said Dr Tina Van De Flierdt, co-author from the department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London.

"Our study underlines that these conditions have led to a large loss of ice and significant rises in global sea level in the past.

"Scientists predict that global temperatures of a similar level may be reached by the end of this century, so it is very important for us to understand what the possible consequences might be," Flierdt said.

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Image: The Sheldon Glacier with Mount Barre in the background, is seen from Ryder Bay near Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica
Photographs: NASA/British Antarctic Survey/Handout via Reuters

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Global warming 5 mn years ago raised sea levels by 20m: Study

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The east Antarctic ice sheet is the largest ice mass on earth, roughly the size of Australia. The ice sheet has fluctuated in size since its formation 34 million years ago, but scientists have previously assumed that it had stabilized around 14 million years ago.

The study was able to determine that the ice sheet had partially melted during this "stable" period by analysing the chemical content of mud in sediments.

These were drilled from depths of more than three kilometres below sea level off the coast of Antarctica. Analysing the mud revealed a chemical fingerprint that enabled the team to trace where it came from on the continent. They discovered that the mud originated from rocks that are currently hidden under the ice sheet.

The only way that significant amounts of this mud could have been deposited as sediment in the sea would be if the ice sheet had retreated inland and eroded these rocks, researchers said.

The study was published in the journal Nature Geoscience.


Image: A satellite view of Antarctica is seen in this undated NASA handout photo obtained by Reuters
Photographs: NASA/Handout/Reuters

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