UW research projects ice sheet collapse, Seattle flooding




Posted on May 14, 2014 at 4:54 AM

A University of Washington researcher and his team have released new data on the rate at which the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could collapse and cause sea levels to rise.

Using satellite imagery combined with numerical models, Ian Joughin calculates the collapse could cause flooding in metropolitan areas as early as 2100.

He and his colleagues studied the rate at which glaciers have calved icebergs over the last couple decades.

“Some glaciers sped up by 50, 60, 70%,” Joughin said.

Alone, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet’s collapse could cause an increase of 2-3 feet in sea level, but it is a crucial piece of ice in the entire Antarctic system. Its collapse may have detrimental effects.

“If you think of a big pile of sand, if you start shoveling parts of it away, the sides are all going to collapse in on you,” Joughin said.

Joughin’s models calculate some risk of flooding in Seattle within 100 years. The red zone on his map would be the first to flood. It includes places like Discovery Park, the Wheel and the Aquarium.

At 6 feet, Alki and parts of West Seattle would flood. The next levels, 9 to 12 feet, would include Pike Place Market, Safeco Field and Century Link Fields.

The worst case scenario is 15 feet of sea level increase, and that would include much of downtown.

“I don’t think people at this point should panic and sell their beach house,” Joughin said.

But he does believe people should take the research seriously, and make wise choices about fossil fuels, even if it could take 1,000 years for the waters to rise to a dangerous level.

“The real problems are going to be born several centuries into the future,” he said. “Is it up to us to say, ‘Let them deal with it,’ or do we try and slow the rate down?”