Sea icy off part of Antarctica despite fear of melt

OSLO (Reuters) - Sea water under an East Antarctic ice shelf showed no sign of higher temperatures despite fears of a thaw linked to global warming that could bring higher world ocean levels, first tests showed on Monday.

A view of the Jutulsessen mountain range in east Antarctica, a sector claimed by Norway about 250 km (155 miles) from the sea, January 19, 2008. REUTERS/Alister Doyle

Sensors lowered through three holes drilled in the Fimbul Ice Shelf showed the sea water is still around freezing and not at higher temperatures widely blamed for the break-up of 10 shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula, the most northerly part of the frozen continent.

“The water under the ice shelf is very close to the freezing point,” Ole Anders Noest of the Norwegian Polar Institute wrote in a statement after drilling through the Fimbul, which is between 250 meters and 400 meters (820-1,310 ft) thick.

“This situation seems to be stable, suggesting that the melting under the ice shelf does not increase,” he wrote of the first drilling cores.

The findings, a rare bit of good news after worrying signs in recent years of polar warming, adds a small bit to a puzzle about how Antarctica is responding to climate change, blamed largely on human use of fossil fuels.

Antarctica holds enough water to raise world sea levels by 57 meters (187 ft) if it ever all melted, so even tiny changes are a risk for low-lying coasts or cities from Beijing to New York.

The Institute said the water under the Fimbul was about -2.05 Celsius (28.31 Fahrenheit) -- salty water freezes at a slightly lower temperature than fresh water.

And it was slightly icier than estimates in a regional computer model for Antarctica, said Nalan Koc, head of the Norwegian Polar Institute’s Center for Ice, Climate and Ecosystems.

“The important thing is that we are now in a position to monitor the water beneath the ice shelf,” she told Reuters. “If there is a warming in future we can tell.”

She said data collected could go into a new report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, due in 2013-14. The last IPCC report, in 2007, did not include models for sea temperature around the Fimbul Ice Shelf.

Experts have generally raised estimates for sea level rise -- the United Nations spoke in late 2009 of a maximum 2 meter rise by 2100, up from 18-59 cms estimated by the IPCC in 2007 that excluded any possible acceleration from Antarctica.

The break-up of ice shelves does not in itself contribute to raise sea levels since the ice is already floating. The risk is that pent-up glaciers on land will flow faster toward the ocean if the shelves are removed.

Last month, most nations agreed at a Copenhagen climate summit to limit any rise in world temperatures to below 2 Celsius above pre-industrial times. But they failed to set cuts in greenhouse gas emissions needed to achieve the goal.