NEW research involving geologists at Durham University suggests that the largest single contributor to global sea level rise - a glacier of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet - may continue thinning for decades to come.

Researchers from the UK, USA and Germany found that Pine Island Glacier (PIG), which is rapidly accelerating, thinning and retreating, has thinned rapidly before.

The team say their findings, published in the journal Science, demonstrate the potential for current ice loss to continue for several decades yet.

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Their findings reveal that 8,000 years ago the glacier thinned as fast as it has in recent decades, providing an important model for its future behaviour. The glacier is currently experiencing significant thinning and retreat that is thought to be caused by ‘ocean-driven’ melting - an increase in warm ocean water finding its way under the ice shelf.

After two decades of rapid ice loss, concerns are growing over how much more ice will be lost to the ocean in the future.

Professor Mike Bentley, a co-leader of the project based at Durham University, said: “The results we’re publishing are the product of long days spent sampling rocks from mountains in Antarctica, coupled to some exceptionally precise laboratory analyses."

Lead author Dr Joanne Johnson, from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), said: “The fact that it thinned so rapidly in the past demonstrates how sensitive it is to environmental change; small changes can produce dramatic and long-lasting results.”