Fast-flowing and narrow glaciers have the potential to trigger massive changes in the Antarctic ice sheet and contribute to rapid ice-sheet decay and sea-level rise, a new study has found. These glaciers are suspected to act as a sort of stream that drain off inland ice sheets. Research results published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveal in more detail than ever before how warming waters in the Southern Ocean are connected intimately with the movement and thinning of massive ice-sheets deep in the Antarctic interior.
"It has long been known that narrow glaciers on the edge of the Antarctica act as discrete arteries termed ice streams, draining the interior of the ice sheet," says Dr Chris Fogwill, an author of the study and an ARC Future Fellow with the UNSW (University of New South Wales)Climate Change Research Center.
"However, our results have confirmed recent observations suggesting that ocean warming can trigger increased flow of ice through these narrow corridors. This can cause inland sectors of the ice-sheet - some larger than the state of Victoria - to become thinner and flow faster."
The researchers, led by Dr Nicholas Golledge from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, tested high-resolution model simulations against reconstructions of the Antarctic ice sheet from 20,000 years ago, during the last glacial maximum.
They used a new model, capable of resolving responses to ice-streams and other fine- scale dynamic features that interact over the entire ice sheet. This had not previously been possible with existing models. They then used this data to analyze the effects of a warming ocean over time.
The results showed that while glacier acceleration triggered by ocean warming is relatively localized, the extent of the resultant ice-sheet thinning is far more widespread. This observation is particularly important in light of recently observed dynamic changes at the margins of Antarctica. It also highlighted areas that are more susceptible than others to changes in ocean temperatures.
The glaciers that responded most rapidly through modeling to warming oceans were found in the Weddell Sea, the Admundsen Sea, the central Ross Sea and in the Amery Trough.
The Antarctic ice sheet is one of the two polar ice caps of the Earth. It covers about 98% of the Antarctic continent and is the largest single mass of ice on Earth. It covers an area of almost 14 million square km and contains 30 million cubic km of ice. That is, approximately 61 percent of all fresh water on the Earth is held in the Antarctic ice sheet, an amount equivalent to 70 meters (over 200 feet) of water in the world's oceans. In East Antarctica, the ice sheet rests on a major land mass, but in West Antarctica the bed can extend to more than 2,500 meter below sea level. The land in this area would be seabed if the ice sheet were not there.
The finding is important because of the enormous scale and potential impact the Antarctic ice sheets could have on sea-level rise if they shift rapidly, says Fogwill. "To get a sense of the scale, the Antarctic ice sheet is 3km deep - three times the height of the Blue Mountains in many areas - and it extends across an area that is equivalent to the distance between Perth and Sydney." This is about 2000 miles.
"Despite its potential impact, Antarctica's effect on future sea level was not fully included in the last IPCC report because there was insufficient information about the behavior of the ice sheet. This research changes that."
For further information see Warming Ocean.
Glacier image via Wikipedia.