Widespread movement of meltwater onto and across Antarctic ice shelves

Water is streaming across Antarctica

Posted: 19 Apr 2017 10:17 AM PDT  full article here

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. 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.

  1. Jonathan Kingslake, Jeremy C. Ely, Indrani Das, Robin E. Bell. Widespread movement of meltwater onto and across Antarctic ice shelves. Nature, 2017; 544 (7650): 349 DOI: 10.1038/nature22049
  2. Robin E. Bell, Winnie Chu, Jonathan Kingslake, Indrani Das, Marco Tedesco, Kirsty J. Tinto, Christopher J. Zappa, Massimo Frezzotti, Alexandra Boghosian, Won Sang Lee. Antarctic ice shelf potentially stabilized by export of meltwater in surface river. Nature, 2017; 544 (7650): 344 DOI: 10.1038/nature22048

Related article: Antarctic scientists go chasing waterfalls

The Atlantic  April 19, 2017

The first-ever hydrological survey of Antarctica has just been completed, and it found nearly 700 streams, ponds, and waterfalls, a sprawling and active meltwater drainage system never previously documented.

….Willis is, in fact, engaged in a project to measure how ice shelves respond to pooling water. He and two other researchers recently spent months in Antarctica, embedding GPS units in different aspects of an ice shelf in order to sense how it torques and flexes as meltwater moves across its surface. “If that water is simply evacuated, then it could be that those ice shelves are more stable than the models currently suggest,” he told me. “But it’s still pretty speculative.”

It’s also unclear how this research will ultimately feed sea-level models. Disintegrating ice shelves threaten to raise global oceans not because of the water they contain, but because they speed up the movement of the glaciers behind them, which are “grounded” on the Antarctic continent. If those ice floes speed up their drive to the sea, they could quickly juice sea levels.

But even if Antarctic ice shelves wind up looking more stable, estimates of sea-level rise before 2100 are unlikely to change. Most near-term sea-level rise will come from “valley glaciers” (ice on the other six continents), thermal expansion (the ocean’s tendency to enlarge as it absorbs heat), and the rapidly eroding ice sheets of Greenland.

Wednesday’s study shows how much there is still to be learned about the southernmost continent—and how much can still be extracted from what we already know. As part of her research, Bell later traveled to Cambridge to read the original Campbell party journals….