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Hippos in the Rhine? - Sierra Daily
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Sierra Daily

Sep 07, 2012

Hippos in the Rhine?

Antarctica thp73 iStock_000014917361XSmallA team of British scientists wants to know what lies beneath. They’ll be drilling into the sediment of Lake Ellsworth, which is covered by the 1.6-mile-thick West Antarctic ice sheet, on a quest that could show the risks of quicker sea-level rise caused by climate change.

The sediments may include bits of ancient seashells that could be dated to reveal when the ice sheet last broke up. No one knows the age of the West Antarctic ice. But if scientists conclude that it broke up in a naturally warmer period about 125,000 years ago, alarm bells could ring. As Reuters puts it: “Most worrying would be if the ice collapsed in the Eemian period 125,000 years ago when temperatures were slightly higher than now, hippopotamuses bathed in the Rhine and world sea levels were 4 to 6 meters higher than today.” The news service puts Miami’s hippo fans on notice: “Experts say the West Antarctic ice sheet over the lake contains enough ice to raise world sea levels by 3-5 meters if it ever broke up - a threat to low-lying areas from Bangladesh to Florida, from Buenos Aires to Shanghai.”

"Society needs to know the risk of a collapse," said Martin Siegert of the University of Bristol, the expedition’s principal investigator. “One way to find out is to know when it last happened."

Image by iStock/thp73.

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

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