Antarctic Snowfall Is Helping Offset Sea Level Rise, But That Won't Save Us

The red shows a decrease in mass between 1900 and 2000; the blue shows an increase.
Image: Alex Kekesi (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and the British Antarctic Survey)

Some extra snowfall in Antarctica has helped the world avoid nearly a half inch of sea level rise this last century, per a new study. That might not sound like much, but when entire communities are getting swallowed by the sea, every inch counts.

Still, this increase in snowfall is not enough to stave off the sea level rise happening around the world. The ice Antarctica developed as a result of the snow makes up a mere third of what the continent is losing, the study published in Nature Climate Change earlier this month notes. The South Pole needs way more snow to solve its conundrum.

“Snowfall plays a critical role in Antarctic mass balance, and it will continue to do so in the future,” said lead author Brooke Medley, a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a press release. “Currently it is helping mitigate ice losses, but it’s not entirely compensating for them.”

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The team of NASA scientists behind this study analyzed 53 ice cores collected across Antarctica. They paired these cores with climate models to estimate snowfall over the entire continent and found that between 1900 and 2000 accumulation increased by approximately 0.04 inches per decade.

The findings affirm and add to the results of a study co-author Elizabeth Thomas led earlier this year, which found snowfall has increased about 10 percent across Antarctica since the 19th century.

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“Antarctica is huge so a little snow can make a big difference,” said Robin Bell, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute not involved in the study, in an email to Earther

The research isn’t exactly surprising, Bell said. A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture and lead to more snowfall, meaning the same thing melting Earth’s ice is likely behind this recent trend. Bell’s all about seeing the brighter side here.

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“[It’s] so nice to know that we can see the extra snow and know that the 100-year [sea level] rise in New York of 28 centimeters would have been 1 centimeter higher,” she said.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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