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Scientists used aerial photographs, satellite measurements and computer models to track how fast the southern-most continent has been melting since 1979.

The study did not find a corresponding increase in the long-term trend of snowfall accumulation in the interior of Antarctica, which had been previously believed to counter the ice loss and minimize sea level rise.

The PNAS study estimated that Antarctica lost 169 billion tonnes of ice from 1992-2017, above the 109 billion tonnes in the same period estimated previous year by a large global team of researchers.

"That's just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak", the study's lead author, Eric Rignot, who serves as a research scientist for both NASA and the University of California - Irvine, said in a university press release.

Antarctica's ice melt has accelerated by 280 percent in the past four decades, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and poses a major flooding threat for small islands and low-lying areas if the torrid pace continues.

"Antarctica is melting away", Rignot told CNN, "not just in a couple of places". Comparing the two records, the New Zealand and Wisconsin researchers recapitulate the history of the Antarctic Ice Sheet throughout most of the past 34 million years, starting when the ice sheet first formed. But in recent years, there has been growing concern that the Antarctic could push that even higher.

"What's different is the mass budget team [the new study's authors] have changed the way they estimate errors, which makes their results appear to be about five times more precise", Shepherd wrote Earther in an email, adding that the new results for East Antarctica represent something of an "outlier". From 1979 to 2001, it was an average of 48 gigatonnes annually per decade. In the Antarctic, the ice shelves extend from the land out over the water.

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Photo taken on December 28, 2017 shows a penguin standing on sea ice in Antarctica.

The new research suggests that a reduction in sea ice due to climate change would erode the barrier keeping the ice sheet - including the parts of it below sea level - in place.

The East Antarctic Ice Sheet is the world's largest, containing roughly half of Earth's freshwater.

Levy and Meyers found that sea ice, or the thin frozen layer of ocean water that surrounds Antarctica, plays a critical role in protecting the miles-deep ice on the continent from the warmer ocean that surrounds it. This massive body of ice flows out into the ocean through a complex array of partially submerged glaciers and thick floating expanses of ice called ice shelves.

However, a subsequent study published in Nature in September 2018 analysed layers of sediment from the ocean floor deposited the last time the Wilkes Subglacial Basin, part of the Eastern Antarctic due south of Australia, melted around 125,000 years ago.

As oceans grow warmer and weaker areas of East and West Antarctica become exposed, Rignot noted that more research needs to be done and fast.