Antarctic ice has retreated and advanced and retreated again many times over the millennia: there has always been argument about how much of the change is because of natural cycles, how much because of human-induced climate change.
Antarctica has enough ice to raise seas by 190 feet if it ever all melted, dwarfing frozen stores in places from Greenland to the Himalayas and making its future the biggest uncertainty in understanding global warming and ocean levels.
An worldwide team of researchers, including scientists from NASA and ESA (European Space Agency), published their findings in the journal Nature Wednesday.
The vast majority of the ice loss is occurring in West Antarctica where warm water is intruding under glaciers and causing them to become more unstable with each passing year.
"Thanks to the satellites our space agencies have launched, we can now track their ice losses and global sea level contribution with confidence", Professor Andrew Shepherd, the lead researcher of the study from the University of Leeds, said in a press release on Wednesday.
The amount of ice lost is nearly three times more than in the 2002-2007 period, the report said.
Three trillion tonnes of ice is an near impossible thing to wrap your head around. At a constant rate that would increase average sea level to almost 12 inches by the end of this century.
But another decade after that, between 2012 and 2017, that number was 219 billion metric tons of ice lost per year.
So what does this mean in terms of sea level rise? Greenland lost an estimated 1 trillion tonnes of ice between 2011 and 2014.
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"The good news is that measures to reduce emissions (eg. adoption of renewable energy) are also growing exponentially". West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula, which reaches toward South America, have been known for some time to be losing ice.
"The power of this research is that it brings together independent methods and results from a collection of different teams throughout the world", noted Twila Moon, a scientist at the US National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado.
And although you may never get to see Antarctica for yourself, these scientists want you to know that what happens in this remote region has a significant impact in your own backyard.
Researchers must extrapolate a smaller amount of data over an area the size of the United States, which can make the analysis less precise.
As part of IMBIE, Professor Shepherd coordinated with 83 other scientists, from 44 global organizations, to combine the data from two dozen different satellite surveys for this comprehensive look at the changes in Antarctica's ice mass balance.
"If we aren't already alert to the dangers posed by climate change, this should be an enormous wake-up call", said Martin Siegert, of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, and one of the authors. "And we find that by combining all of the available measurements we can iron out the problems that individual techniques have".
Another component of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, marine-based ice, sits below sea level and is thus directly affected by the ocean.
A penguin stands on an iceberg in Yankee Harbour, Antarctica. Scientists can't see the future, but they do fear continuing and even worsening losses. This roughly suggests that Antarctica glacial melting is now adding about 0.5 millimeters per year to sea level rise.
Advancements in Earth-observing satellites have enabled researchers to better understand the polar regions.