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Science Digest: Melting of Ice Sheet Might Not Be as Worrisome as Was Thought

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Good News Still Bad On Antarctic Ice Melt

A new study has found that one of the worst-case scenarios for sea-level rise -- the melting of an Antarctic ice sheet that is as vast as Texas and as thick as 1.8 miles -- would not be as bad as previously thought.

That is still not good news.

The research examined the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, one of the most worrisome chunks of ice in the world. It sits partly on ground that slopes downward or is far below sea level. That means that, if the floating ice that locks it in place ever disappeared because of global warming, much of the sheet could float out to sea and melt.

Previous research had estimated that the result might be a catastrophic 16-to-20-foot rise in global sea levels.

But recently, a group led by Jonathan Bamber, a professor at the University of Bristol in England, used new data about the underlying terrain to reassess that prediction that was published in the journal Science. Group members were not studying climate change itself but, instead, how the ice sheet would react to it.

Their conclusion: Not all of the sheet would slide off and melt, but two-thirds might. That would be enough to raise sea levels by about 11 feet over a few centuries.

If that happened, the scientists posited, the North American coast would be hit hard. The reasons were surprising: The ice is so heavy that, if its mass shifted, Earth's gravitational field and its rotation would shift, too. Those processes would cause more water to pile up here.

So, Bamber said, better news but not good news: "Eleven feet, 20 feet: They are both unthinkable."

-- David Fahrenthold

Simian Regrets

Monkeys are capable of having "coulda, woulda, shoulda" thoughts of regret and learning from their mistakes, scientists have reported.

In a study in the journal Science, Duke University Medical Center researchers described an experiment in which they taught rhesus monkeys to play a game similar to the TV show "Deal or No Deal." The monkeys had to choose the one "correct" square out of eight to win a sip of cherry juice. If they chose incorrectly, researchers revealed the container of juice they missed out on, much as the models on "Deal or No Deal" open a suitcase and show the contestant the money he lost.


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