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 Cold Comfort. Story by Anita Neal Harrison.

 

Curt Davis braced himself for a media onslaught when he submitted his last academic paper for publication. The MU professor of electrical and computer engineering figured the world press would, as he put it, "jump all over" his conclusion that, despite rising global temperatures, satellite data from East Antarctica showed that a huge chunk of the frozen continent's surface was actually growing in thickness.

"There have been a lot of papers about how the edges are losing mass," he says. "We have something that's showing a little bit opposite of that."

A little bit indeed. Davis's study, published last year in the journal Science and co-authored by Yonghong Li of MU, Joseph R. McConnell of Nevada's Desert Research Institute, Markus M. Frey of the University of Arizona, and Edward Hanna of Britain's University of Sheffield, showed that between 1992 and 2003 the surface elevation of East Antarctica's interior rose almost two centimeters each year, or just over seven-tenths of an inch.

It's a small increase that could have big implications for the planet. Multiplied over the 2.8 million-square-mile area that Davis included in his study, the increase is adding 45 billion metric tons of water to the ice sheet each year. Davis estimates that this much new water is enough to reduce the ongoing rise in world sea levels by a twelfth of a millimeter per year.

That conclusion -- that growth of the interior ice sheet is lessening the ocean's rise -- is what Davis knew would catch a lot of people's attention. For years scientists have warned that shrinking Antarctic ice could boost global sea levels, and that the consequences of higher seas could be catastrophic for the estimated 2.2 billion people who make their homes along the world's coasts.

Davis's finding that the ice sheet is actually gaining mass would appear to mitigate these concerns. Unfortunately, he says, it's not that simple. "It's good news in the sense that sea levels will be rising less. But it's bad news in the sense that it may be a direct ..." Davis pauses for emphasis, "... may be a direct result of global warming."

Moreover, he is quick to point out, his finding does not tell Antarctica's whole story. While the East Antarctic interior appears to be gaining ice, surveys by other researchers have shown that some of the continent's coastal areas appear to be losing it. Davis admits that neither he nor anyone else can say with certainty whether interior gains or coastal losses are having the bigger effect on the planet's sea levels.

"We knew there would be parts of the press that would want to take [our study] and, for political reasons, just spin the hell out of it," Davis says. "So we were very careful in our press releases and in the way we wrote this paper to point out that warming could be causing this, number one. And number two, we still don't know overall how Antarctica is changing because the coastal areas may be putting more ice into the ocean."

       
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©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.