vox_mundi wrote:Water is streaming across Antarctica: New survey finds liquid flow more widespread than thought
A 400-foot-wide waterfall drains off the Nansen Ice Shelf into the ocean
Video - In the first such continent-wide survey, scientists have found extensive drainages of meltwater flowing over parts of Antarctica's ice during the brief summer. Researchers already knew such features existed, but assumed they were confined mainly to Antarctica's fastest-warming, most northerly reaches. Many of the newly mapped drainages are not new, but the fact they exist at all is significant; they appear to proliferate with small upswings in temperature, so warming projected for this century could quickly magnify their influence on sea level. An accompanying study looks at how such systems might influence the great ice shelves ringing the continent, which some researchers fear could collapse, bringing catastrophic sea-level rises. Both studies appear this week in the leading scientific journal Nature.
Explorers and scientists have documented a few Antarctic melt streams starting in the early 20th century, but no one knew how extensive they were. The authors found out by systematically cataloging images of surface water in photos taken from military aircraft from 1947 onward, and satellite imagery from 1973 on. They found nearly 700 seasonal systems of interconnected ponds, channels and braided streams fringing the continent on all sides. Some run as far as 75 miles, with ponds up to several miles wide. They start as close as 375 miles from the South Pole, and at 4,300 feet above sea level, where liquid water was generally thought to be rare to impossible.
"This is not in the future—this is widespread now, and has been for decades," said lead author Jonathan Kingslake, a glaciologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "I think most polar scientists have considered water moving across the surface of Antarctica to be extremely rare. But we found a lot of it, over very large areas." The data are too sparse in many locations for the researchers to tell whether the extent or number of drainages have increased over the seven decades covered by the study. "We have no reason to think they have," said Kingslake. "But without further work, we can't tell. Now, looking forward, it will be really important to work out how these systems will change in response to warming, and how this will affect the ice sheets."
Each red 'X' represents a separate drainage. Up to now, such features were thought to exist mainly on the far northerly Antarctic Peninsula (upper left). Their widespread presence signals that the ice may be more vulnerable to melting than previously thought. Credit: Adapted from Kingslake et al., Nature 2017
The most dramatic example is the Antarctic Peninsula, which juts far north from the main ice sheet, and where average temperatures have soared 7 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years. In 1995 and 2002, large chunks of the peninsula's Larsen Ice Shelf suddenly disintegrated into the ocean within days. Scientists now suspect that pooling water was at work; liquid tends to burrow down, fracturing the ice with heat or pressure, or both, until a shattering point is reached. Today, another giant piece of the Larsen is cracking, and could come apart at any time.
Further south, temperatures have remained more or less stable, but many of the newly spotted streams there already make their way from the interior out onto ice shelves, or originate on the shelves themselves. That raises the specter that such collapses could happen across much vaster reaches of Antarctica this century, should warming proceed as expected, said Kingslake.
Antarctica's visible drainages may be the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Another study by a separate team published in January revealed that East Antarctica's Roi Baudouin Ice Shelf harbors a largely invisible liquid drainage just under the snow. The team, led by Utrecht University polar scientist Jan Lenaerts, detected it using radar images and drilling. They suspect that such features lurk in many places. And unlike surface streams, these ones are insulated, so may stay liquid year-round.
Until recently, icebergs discharged from glaciers were Greenland's main contributor to sea-level rise. But between 2011 and 2014, 70 percent of the 269 million tons of Greenland's ice and snow lost to the ocean came directly from meltwater, not icebergs.
Widespread movement of meltwater onto and across Antarctic ice shelves - Image1, Image2, Image3, Image4, Image5, Image6
This is exactly the kind of thing that is now implicated in speeding up the rate of movement of the Greenland Ice Sheet, taking more ice more rapidly to the sea where it calves and contributes to sea level rise.