Climate: Is this the Antarctic tipping point?

dfsg

Staff Report

FRISCO — Along with studies showing dramatic changes in individual ice shelves in Antarctica, new research shows widespread changes in the region since 2009. Up until then, the Southern Antarctic Peninsula showed no signs of change.

But suddenly, multiple glaciers along a vast coastal expanse, measuring some 750km in length, suddenly started to shed ice into the ocean at a nearly constant rate of 60 cubic kilometers, or about 55 trillion liters of water, each year. This makes the region the second largest contributor to sea level rise in Antarctica and the ice loss shows no sign of waning.

“The fact that so many glaciers in such a large region suddenly started to lose ice came as a surprise to us,” said Dr. Bert Wouters, a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Bristol, who lead the study. “It shows a very fast response of the ice sheet: in just a few years the dynamic regime completely shifted.”

The research, published in Science, is based on measurements made by a suite of satellites, including CryoSat-2, which can measure the elevation of the ice sheet with pinpoint accuracy using radar pulses.

By analyzing roughly 5 years of the data, the researchers found that the ice surface of some of the glaciers is currently going down by as much as 4m each year.

The ice loss in the region is so large that it causes small changes in the gravity field of the Earth, which can be detected by another satellite mission, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE).

“To date, the glaciers added roughly 300 cubic km of water to the ocean. That’s the equivalent of the volume of nearly 350,000 Empire State Buildings combined,” Wouters said.

Data from an Antarctic climate model shows that the sudden change cannot be explained by changes in snowfall or air temperature. Instead, the team attributes the rapid ice loss to warming oceans.

Many of the glaciers in the region feed into ice shelves that float on the surface of the ocean. They act as a buttress to the ice resting on bedrock inland, slowing down the flow of the glaciers into the ocean.

The westerly winds that encircle Antarctica have strengthened in recent decades, in response to climate warming and ozone depletion. The stronger winds push warm waters from the Southern Ocean poleward, where they eat away at the glaciers and floating ice shelves from below.

The floating ice shelves in the region have lost almost one-fifth of their thickness in the last two decades, offering less resistance to the land-based glaciers. According to the researchers, a key concern is that much of the ice of the Southern Antarctic Peninsula is grounded on bedrock below sea level, which gets deeper inland. This means that even if the glaciers retreat, the warm water will chase them inland and melt them even more.

“It appears that sometime around 2009, the ice shelf thinning and the subsurface melting of the glaciers passed a critical threshold which triggered the sudden ice loss,” Wouters said. “However, compared to other regions in Antarctica, the Southern Peninsula is rather understudied, exactly because it did not show any changes in the past, ironically.

“To pinpoint the cause of the changes, more data need to be collected. A detailed knowledge of the geometry of the local ice shelves, the ocean floor topography, ice sheet thickness and glacier flow speeds are crucial to tell how much longer the thinning will continue.”

Summit County Citizens Voice

Study shows widespread, simultaneous ice shelf melting

dfsg Satellite data shows sudden shift in ice shelf dynamics along the southern Antarctic Peninsula. @berwyn photo.

Staff Report

FRISCO — Along with studies showing dramatic changes in individual ice shelves in Antarctica, new research shows widespread changes in the region since 2009. Up until then, the Southern Antarctic Peninsula showed no signs of change.

But suddenly, multiple glaciers along a vast coastal expanse, measuring some 750km in length, suddenly started to shed ice into the ocean at a nearly constant rate of 60 cubic kilometers, or about 55 trillion liters of water, each year. This makes the region the second largest contributor to sea level rise in Antarctica and the ice loss shows no sign of waning.

View original post 479 more words