Member Highlight: How Wind Might Nudge A Sleeping Giant In Antarctica

2017-11-07T14:15:52+00:00 November 7, 2017|
Research plane over Totten Glacier. (Credit: Image courtesy of Imperial College London)

(Click to enlarge) Research plane over Totten Glacier. (Credit: Image courtesy of Imperial College London)

Scientists believe they’ve identified a key process affecting the melting of an enormous glacier in East Antarctica, bigger than the state of California. And the effects may only worsen with future climate change.

(From Scientific American / by Chelsea Harvey) — New research published yesterday in the journal Science Advances suggests that wind patterns around the coast of Antarctica may help drive warm water up from the seafloor and into the cavities below East Antarctica’s Totten Ice Shelf, causing it to melt from the bottom up.

“We knew that there was warm water around; we knew that all the physical setting was there to make this process possible—but no one had observed the cause and effect,” said the new study’s lead author, Chad Greene, a geological scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. The new paper may be the first to demonstrate how the influx of warm water underneath the ice shelf is influenced by Antarctic winds.

These processes are expected to become more intense over the next century, the researchers noted, meaning the glacier could eventually start to melt at a faster rate. And that’s concerning news, given the sheer size of the Totten Glacier. If all the ice it contains were to melt into the ocean, it would raise global sea levels by more than 11 feet. Some scientists have even begun to refer to it as East Antarctica’s “sleeping giant.”

The outward flow of all that ice is held back by the Totten Ice Shelf, a kind of floating ledge of ice that juts out into the ocean and is disconnected from the bedrock grounding the rest of the glacier. Ice shelves are crucial stabilizing components of glaciers—but as they melt and become thinner, they become more likely to break and release a flood of ice behind them. Now, scientists are increasingly worried about the Totten Ice Shelf’s vulnerability to warm ocean water seeping up from the bottom of the sea.

The ocean’s influence on thinning ice shelves is a phenomenon researchers have mainly observed in West Antarctica, where several rapidly melting glaciers remain—for now—scientists’ chief preoccupation on the Antarctic ice sheet. It’s a field of research that has been gaining traction in recent years. Where before rising air temperatures were thought to be the dominant force affecting the melting of the world’s ice sheets, studies increasingly suggest that the interaction of ice and ocean is a critical factor.

Data on the processes affecting East Antarctica are more scant, but over the last few years, several major studies have indicated that the Totten Ice Shelf may also be melting from below. One of the most recent of these, a major paper published in Science Advances last December, confirmed that warm water is actually flowing into a cavity at the front of the glacier through a previously undiscovered channel.

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