‘Unavoidable’ threat to beaches prompts call for urgent planning

It's likely 'unavoidable' that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will melt at an increasing rate.

A new discovery on the remote shores of Antarctica has pinpointed a “very serious” and worsening threat to beaches around the world.

Even if we rapidly reduce emissions, researchers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have found it’s likely “unavoidable” that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will melt at an increasing rate in the coming decades, causing the world’s mean sea level to rise.

That’s bad news for millions of coastal dwellers around the world who will then be impacted by significant erosion and extreme weather. As a result, lead author Dr Kaitlin Naughten is calling on policymakers to start planning for these predicted changes. “If you need to abandon or substantially re-engineer a coastal region, having 50 years lead time is going to make all the difference,” she said.

Two men with their backs to the camera at a beach.
Coastal communities around the world face increased threat from rising sea levels. Source: Getty (File)

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, Dr Naughten added that sea level rises have the potential to trigger a refugee crisis, particularly in developing nations where there aren't funds available to build complex engineering projects.

"A refugee crisis would in turn have geopolitical and economic implications that impact all of us, as we can already see around the world," she said.

Why the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is important

The loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is the icy continent’s biggest contributor to rising global sea levels. It stretches deep underwater and contains a massive 3.2 million cubic kilometres of ice — a total loss could cause the world’s mean sea level to rise by five metres.

Published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, the BAS researchers used the UK's supercomputer to simulate four future climate scenarios. Under a best case 1.5 degrees global temperature rise, they still predicted melting would likely increase three times faster than last century.

That's because rising temperatures are already locked in thanks to years of inaction by governments to combat the climate crisis.

Melting ice at North Cove, Rothera Research Station.
Sea level melting is expected to accelerate over the coming decades. Source: Michael Shortt, BAS

How this research could help protect millions of people

Despite her warning that we’ve “lost control” of the melting and that climate action should have started decades ago, Dr Naughten revealed there is a “bright side” to the BAS discovery. “We must not stop working to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels… The slower the sea level changes, the easier it will be for governments and society to adapt to, even if it can’t be stopped,” she said.

What the research means for Australia

Responding to the research, the Climate Council’s Dr Simon Bradshaw said “a lot more” will need to be done in Australia to support communities set to be impacted by rising sea levels.

While the modelling predicted similar rates of warming until 2045, there was a divergence in outcomes in the latter half of the century, leading Dr Bradshaw to renew a call that it’s still “critically important” fossil fuel use is reduced.

“Ultimately that will be the difference between many more communities being overwhelmed by sea level rise, or being able to adapt,” he told Yahoo.

With Australia continuing to open new fossil fuel emitting projects like coal mines, he said the BAS research is a reminder the nation must reform its “outdated” environment laws.

“It’s a clarion call for us to drive down our emissions and reform our laws so that we’re stopping the approval of new developments that add to the problem and endanger everybody,” he said.

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