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Changing Antarctic Winds Threat to Sea Level: Study

Update Date: Jul 07, 2014 02:42 PM EDT

Sea levels may rise much faster than previously predicted because climate models have failed to account for the disruptive effects strong westerly winds, a new study has found. 

Previously, a study had suggested that giant glaciers of West Antarctica may have started irreversible melting, eventually causing sea levels to rise as much as 3 meters in 200-500 years. 

That estimate, though, may prove optimistic because models had failed to account for how strengthening westerly winds in the Southern Ocean would start to impinge coastal easterlies, upsetting a delicate balance of warm and cold waters close to the Antarctic ice sheets, said Paul Spence, an oceanographer at the University of NSW's Climate Change Research Centre, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. 

"It's the first time that I looked at my science and thought, 'Oh my god, that is very concerning'!", he said. "You hope it's wrong and you hope it doesn't happen.

"If you were buying land in Australia and wanting to pass it down to your kids or your grandchildren, I suggest it's a couple of metres above sea-level," Dr Spence added.

The research further found that the coastal temperature structure was more sensitive to global warming than previously identified. 

"The dynamic barrier between cold and warm water relaxes, and this relatively warm water just offshore floods into the ice-shelf regions, increasing the temperatures by 4 degrees under the ice shelf," he said.

"If you look at how sensitive the coastal ocean is to these changing winds, you could put a lot more heat under these ice shelves than people have previously thought," Dr Spence added in the press release, according to Sydney Morning Herald. 

The research has been published in Geophysical Research Letters.

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