Antarctic Meltwater Isn't the Crisis We Thought It Was

Antarctica rivers

Because the ice exposed in these areas are darker than those in snow-covered areas, it absorbs more solar energy and is more prone to melting.

Dr Jeremy Ely, from Sheffield University's geography department, said: "If melted completely, Antarctica's ice sheets contain enough water to raise global sea levels by around 58 metres".

All that makes meltwater a little worrisome for climate scientists, but there may be a silver lining, at least according to one of the published papers. The ice shelves will "still become more unstable as the climate warms", Dr. Banwell says, but they might not break up as rapidly as otherwise thought.

Current predictions of sea-level rise do not include these processes. Some of the photos taken by military aircraft are as old as 70 years while the satellite imagery was assessed from 1973 onward.

Melt-water pooling on the surface of ice shelves can suddenly drain below the surface, fracturing the ice with heat and pressure, studies have shown.

The positive news is that we now have information data than ever before about what's happening with meltwater in Antarctica, and that should help us understand more about how the ice could shift in the future.

During the southern hemisphere summer, the melt-water is efficiently drained through sinkholes and a "roaring 400-foot-wide waterfall into the ocean", Bell said. Water is heavy, and the weight can cause the ice below these lakes to crack. "So we really can't tell what the future holds for any one particular ice shelf".

But the main damage to ice shelves comes from ocean water eroding their underbellies.

A relatively flat ice shelf (a) is likely to have numerous melt ponds and streams, which could destabilize the shelf by infiltrating crevasses and causing more fracture, while an ice shelf with a steeper slope (b) may have more of a large river network that could export meltwater off the ice shelf.

Numerous newly mapped channels start in mountains that poke between glaciers, or in areas where winds have whipped the snow covering off bluish ice.

"He added: "Our study has found that extensive networks of lakes and streams have persisted in Antarctica for decades which move surface water across its ice sheets on" to ice shelves".

Rising temperatures are eroding ice shelves - which can be hundreds of metres thick and extend hundreds of kilometres over ocean water - on two fronts, scientists say. Banwell, who wrote a Nature commentary on the two papers, was not involved with the research.

Regardless of what they find, Bell and Kingslake are excited to delve further into the meltwater systems, which Bell says show that "there's still so much beauty to be discovered on our planet". This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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