Recent satellite data revealed a dramatic change in glacier melting patterns in one of Antarctica’s most stable ice sheets.
According to the team of scientists studying this phenomenon, the Southern Antarctic Peninsula ice sheet, which had been considered stable until 2009, has started losing tremendous amounts of ice into the ocean. The melting rate has exceeded 56 gigatons yearly, the equivalent of 8,500 times the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
These recent changes in the peninsula’s glaciers are contributing to significant rises in global sea levels. Starting with 2009, there have been over 70 cubic miles of water that have wound up in the world’s oceans. Consider that 3 cubic miles are enough to supply the entire United Kingdom with water for an entire year.
“Around 2009/2010, the surface in this part of the southern Antarctic Peninsula started to lower at a really quite dramatic rate,” Jonathan Bramber, study co-author explains.
Such abrupt changes suggest that the planet’s ice sheets are very sensitive to global temperature changes.
The study authors point towards the recent warming of the Bellingshausen Sea as a potential cause for this sudden change in glacier dynamics. The Bellingshausen Sea bathes the western coast of the peninsula. Due to the recent temperature increase of approximately 1 degree Fahrenheit due to changing winds, ocean waters have infiltrated the coastal areas atop which Antarctica’s glaciers lie.
Slowly but surely, this warm water has warmed the glaciers, causing them to lose stability and begin melting.
Starting with 2009, the area has been losing mass at a constant rate and hasn’t slowed.
Despite this rapid melting rate, Antarctica still has a small contribution to our planet’s sea level rise. It amounts to 0.5 mm yearly. However, with this recent satellite data, the south-western peninsula sector has now earned the second position among the largest input sources to Antarctica’s contribution.
Antarctica’s potential contribution, though, is massive. If all the ice currently housed in Antarctica were to melt, sea levels would rise by approximately 200 feet. As unlikely as that seems, scientists explain that this recent instability of the Southern Antarctic Peninsula ice sheet should serve as a warning sign.
These findings were possible due to the European Space Agency’s Cryosat Paltform. The satellite, circling our planet at a height of approximately 700 km, uses cutting-edge radar altimeters to measure ice surface shapes.
Additionally, the Bristol team or researchers also used data collected by the Grace satellites. They are capable of sensing our planet’s gravitational field and calculate the amount of ice that has melted in particular regions of the world.
All the findings point towards an increase in ocean temperatures and not air temperatures as the essential factor in this increased glacier melting rate.
There is a clear advantage in being able to employ such remarkable technology in keeping track of the planet’s glaciers. Scientists are capable of witnessing relevant changes in real time and warn decision makers about the possible consequences we face.
The team’s research was published in the journal Science.
Image Source: Relevant Media Group
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