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NASA Study Indicates Antarctica is Gaining More Ice Than It's Losing

A new study released by NASA reveals that Antarctica is currently gaining more ice than it's losing, disputing other studies that say the continent is overall losing land ice.

The gain in ice is attributed to an increase in Antarctic snow accumulation, which began 10,000 years ago. Satellite data showed that the Antarctic ice had a net gain of 112 billion tons of ice per year from 1992 to 2001, but then slowed to 82 billion tons of ice per year during 2003 to 2008, according to the report, which was published in the Journal of Glaciology.

Jay Zwally, lead author of the study and a glaciologist with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said his team measured small height changes over large areas, as well as large changes observed over smaller areas.

The team agreed with other research that has shown an increase in ice discharge in the Antarctic Peninsula as well as the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers of West Antarctica but saw results across other parts of the continent that differed from the 2013 study issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

"Our main disagreement is for East Antarctica and the interior of West Antarctica - there, we see an ice gain that exceeds the losses in the other areas," Zwally said in a news release.

The team calculated that the mass gain from the thickening of East Antarctica held steady at 200 billion tons per year from 1992 to 2008. Meanwhile, the losses from the coastal regions of West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula increased by 65 billion tons per year.

Still, there are concerns that Antarctica's growth could reverse. Zwally said if the losses in West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula continue to increase at the same rate as the past two decades, it could be as soon as 20 or 30 years before the losses catch up.

"I don't think there will be enough snowfall increase to offset these losses," Zwally said.

The increase in snowfall that began 10,000 years ago slowly accumulated and compacted into solid ice, thickening the ice in East Antarctica and interior of West Antarctic by 0.7 of an inch per year. This increase has helped reduce global sea level rise and "outweigh the losses from fast-flowing glaciers," the researchers said.

"The good news is that Antarctica is not currently contributing to sea level rise but is taking 0.23 mm per year away," Zwally said. "But this is also bad news. If the 0.27 mm per year of sea level rise attributed to Antarctica in the IPCC report is not really coming from Antarctica, there must be some other contribution to sea level rise that is not accounted for."

NASA used its first Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) from 2003 to 2008 to measure changes in surface height. The agency announced it is launching the ICESat-2 satellite in 2018 to help continue to accurately monitor changes.

According to NASA's Global Ice Viewer, the Antarctic has gained an average of 7,300 square miles of sea ice per year since the late 1970s.

"A warming climate is likely changing wind patterns surrounding Antarctica, which may be helping to push the sea ice northward, thus increasing the extent," NASA said.

This year's maximum sea ice extent in the Antarctic ended a streak of three consecutive years of record highs with a measurement of 7.27 million square miles, a total closer to normal extent. Scientists attribute this year's extent to the effects of El Niño, which can bring higher sea level pressure, higher air temperatures and sea surface temperatures to the seas around West Antarctica.

In the Arctic, this year's sea ice extent was the fourth lowest on record since observations from space began. Arctic sea ice has been in decline at a rate of 13.4 per decade, relative to the 1981-2010 average, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

Arctic sea ice cover can help regulate the planet's temperature by reflecting sunlight back to space, which keeps polar regions cool and moderates global climate.

NASA previously announced that Antarctic sea ice increases are not enough to make up for the accelerated Arctic sea ice loss of the last several decades.

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