EcoAlert: Great Antarctica Melt Contributing 10% of Global Sea Rise

6a00d8341bf7f753ef0133f185f1bf970b-320wi Thinning ice in Antarctica is currently contributing nearly 10 per cent of global sea level rise according to scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) and the National Oceanography Centre in the journal Nature Geoscience. The international team identified Pine Island Glacier (PIG) as a major source.

An exciting new discovery was made as part of a series of investigations to better understand the impact of melting ice on sea level. Using Autosub (an autonomous underwater vehicle) to dive deep and travel far beneath the Pine Island Glacier's floating ice shelf, scientists captured ocean and sea-floor measurements, which revealed a 300 meter high ridge on the sea floor.


Pine Island Glacier was once grounded on (sitting on top of) this underwater ridge, which slowed its flow into the sea. However, in recent decades it has thinned and disconnected from the ridge, allowing the glacier to move ice more rapidly from the land into the sea. This also permitted deep warm ocean water to flow over the ridge and into a widening cavity that now extends to an area of 1000 km2 under the ice shelf. The warm water, trapped under the ice, is causing the bottom of the ice shelf to melt, resulting in continuous thinning and acceleration of the glacier.

The discovery of the ridge has raised new questions about whether the current loss of ice from Pine Island Glacier is caused by recent climate change or is a continuation of a longer-term process that began when the glacier disconnected from the ridge.

The scientists do not know what kick-started the initial retreat from the ridge, but we do know that it started some time prior to 1970. Since detailed observations of Pine Island Glacier only began in the 1990s, we now need to use other techniques such as ice core analysis and computer modelling to look much further into the glacier's history in order to understand if what we see now is part of a long term trend of ice sheet contraction. This work is vital for evaluating the risk of potential wide-spread collapse of West Antarctic glaciers.

Team member Stan Jacobs adds: "Since our first measurements in the Amundsen Sea, estimates of Antarctica's recent contributions to sea level rise have changed from near-zero to significant and increasing. Now finding that the PIG's grounding line has recently retreated more than 30 km from a shallow ridge into deeper water, where it is pursued by a warming ocean, only adds to our concern that this region is indeed the 'weak underbelly' of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Increased melting of continental ice also appears to be the primary cause of persistent ocean freshening and other impacts, both locally and downstream in the Ross Sea."

Casey Kazan via  British Antarctic Survey

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