Warming ocean temperatures have caused large chunks of Antarctica’s underbelly to melt much faster than their normal rates should allow, according to a new study in Nature Geoscience.
When researchers analyze the melting arctic, they often look at the outer regions where damage is the most visible. However, in the new study a team of scientists from the University of Leeds found that there is a lot more going on beneath the surface.
They discovered that ice is receding deep below eight of Antarctica’s largest glaciers at a pace that is five times faster than what models predict. If such melting continues it would not only rise the world’s sea levels, it could cause the largest ice sheet on Earth to completely collapse.
“Our study provides clear evidence that retreat is happening across the ice sheet due to ocean melting at its base,” said lead author Hannes Konrad, a climate researcher at the University of Leeds in England, according to Live Science. “This retreat has had a huge impact on inland glaciers, because releasing them from the sea bed removes friction, causing them to speed up and contribute to global sea-level rise.”
For the new research, the team combined buoyancy equations with satellite imagery to map out the invisible retreat of underwater ice across more than 10,000 miles of Antarctica’s coastline. They took special interest in geographical features known as grounding lines — areas where glacier ice meets with solid ocean bedrock — because such regions reveal how much a glacier melts.
While some grounding line retreat is natural, current levels go far beyond normal melting rates. The lines should diminish at a pace of roughly 82 feet per year. However, some regions are receding at a pace of 600 feet per year. In fact,the data showed that warming ocean temperatures melted away roughly 565 square miles of underwater ice between 2010 and 2016.
While only 2 percent of the entire continent retreated at that pace, it is still cause for concern. That is because if nothing is done about the accelerated melting it will cause the entire inland sheet to collapse into the ocean. That would then cause global sea levels to rise by 10 feet or more by 2100.
The team hopes to further their study of grounding lines in order to figure out why some areas are melting so much quicker than others. This study is the first step in such a process.