Antarctica's ice melt has accelerated by 280 percent in the past four decades, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and poses a major flooding threat for small islands and low-lying areas if the torrid pace continues.
Between 1979 and 1990, Antarctica lost 40 billion metric tons of ice per year, a figure that rose six times to 252 billion metric tons per year between 2009 and 2017.
Scientists studied 40 years of satellite images and climate models in 176 individual basins to track how fast Antarctica has been melting. They estimated annual snowfall and measured the speed of ice discharging out to sea to estimate how much ice each of Antarctica's glaciers sent out to sea each year.
Researchers then subtracted the amount of snowfall from the amount of ice lost to sea to determine Antarctica sends six times more ice into the sea each year than it did in 1979.
"I don't want to be alarmist," glaciologist Eric Rignot of the University of California, Irvine, told The Washington Post.
"[But] the places undergoing changes in Antarctica are not limited to just a couple places. They seem to be more extensive than what we thought. That, to me, seems to be reason for concern."
The study found East Antarctica, which contains most of the continent's ice, was responsible for more than 30 percent of the continent's contribution to sea level rise.
"The more we look at this system the more we realize this is a fragile system," Rignot says. "Once these glaciers are destabilized there is no red button to press to stop it."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.