As Antarctica's Glaciers Melt, Scientists Say 909 Miles of Ice Just Broke Free From the Continent

Tuesday, 03 April 2018 - 10:53AM
Tuesday, 03 April 2018 - 10:53AM
As Antarctica's Glaciers Melt, Scientists Say 909 Miles of Ice Just Broke Free From the Continent
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Image credit: YouTube

As part of scientists' continuing efforts to monitor and report on the effects of man-made climate change across the globe, a new research project has revealed the places where Antarctica is losing the most ice to the ocean.

It's not easy to see what's going on under the thick ice sheets that surround Antarctica—unlike at the North Pole, Antarctica is made up of rock as well as ice. The big glaciers at the planet's pole are connected to the bedrock underneath.

As time passes and the waters of the ocean get warmer, though, that connection to the bedrock is being eroded, as the ice that tethers Antarctica's glaciers slowly melts away. More and more ice is no longer connected to the bedrock underneath, and as such, while there may be plenty of ice on display from an aerial glance at the surface, underneath the water, more ice is left floating, rather than being connected to the ground of the continent itself.

In essence, Antarctica "gives ground to the ocean" where the ice is no longer rooted to its spot, and otherwise healthy-looking areas of the polar region are deteriorating under the surface.

In order to conduct a full study of the state of decay throughout Antarctica's icy glaciers, a team of scientists led by experts at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom has used Europe's Cryosat radar spacecraft to take detailed recordings of the ice far below the water in Antarctica.

The results of this study are not looking pretty: it appears that an area of 909 square miles of ice that was previously connected to bedrock is now floating free, all the more exposed and susceptible to further deterioration over time.

Thanks to the comprehensive nature of this new research, it's possible to determine which fronts are most at risk. Not all of Antarctica is being affected equally by rising water temperatures, and it seems that, in line with scientists' predictions, the Western side of the continent is melting a lot faster than its Eastern side. This is being caused by different currents of water that are carrying heated streams from across the oceans down into Antarctica, wearing it out at a faster rate.

According to Dr. Hannes Konrad of the University of Leeds, who has led this study:

Opening quote
"What we're able to do now with Cryosat is put the behaviour of retreating glaciers in a much wider context. Our method for monitoring grounding lines requires a lot of data but it means you could now basically build a permanent service to monitor the state of the edges of the continent.
"If you take 25m per year as a threshold, which is sort of the average since the end of the last ice age, and you say anything below this threshold is normal behaviour and anything above it is faster than normal—then in West Antarctica, almost 22 percent of grounding lines are retreating more rapidly than 25m/yr. That's a statement we can only make now because we have this wider context."
Closing quote

Things aren't looking good for Antarctica's climate in general, and once its colder water starts to heat up, more ice is going to break off and start to float freely. Water currents around the world are exceptionally important to local weather patterns, and once huge chunks of ice start floating around in places that they shouldn't be, the result will more than likely be storms, droughts, and everything in between.

We're looking at a pretty rough time for Antarctica over the next few decades, and we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Science News