environmental

Bleak views of melting Antarctic ice, from above and below

Images from satellites high above the Earth have helped a research team put together a stark visual chronicle of decades of glacier disintegration in Antarctica. Meanwhile, a separate international research team has taken the opposite perspective – studying the ice from its underbelly. Both teams are documenting the stress on two glaciers in West Antarctica that so far have helped check a massive stream of melting ice responsible for about 5 percent of Earth’s rising sea levels.

Climate researchers have long monitored ice sheet dynamics in the Amundsen Sea, focusing specifically on the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers. The two sit side by side on Antarctica’s western peninsula covering an area roughly the size of nine U.S. coastal states stretching from Maine to Maryland. The two glaciers alone store ice that could account for about 4 feet (1.2 meters) of global sea level rise. Their “seaboard” location may help bring increased public attention and interest to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which if it melted could raise seas by a catastrophic 11 feet (3.4 meters).

An international effort led by the British Antarctic Survey recently published two papers (Hogan et al. and Jordan et al.) showing the first detailed maps of the seafloor at the edge of the Thwaites Glacier. The team mapped deep submarine channels that have been funneling warm water to this vulnerable location. High-resolution imagery pinpoints the pathways that allow warm water to undermine the ice shelf. Lead author Kelly Hogan of the British Antarctic Survey says the findings will improve estimates of sea-level rise from Thwaites Glacier. “We can go ahead and make those calculations about how much warm water can get under the ice and melt it,” Hogan said.

The other researchers, led by Stef Lhermitte, found stark visual confirmation of glacier disintegration using decades of time-lapse satellite imagery. Their work sheds light on the accelerating feedback process, wherein the rapid loss of ice is opening the door to ever-increasing melting.

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