According to new research, the fate of the Antarctica could be predicted by astonishing, 250 meter high channels (around the height of the Eiffel Tower), streaming through the ice shelf.
Meltwater Exit Paths from Ice Sheets Aligns with Ice Shelf Channels
An ice shelf is a floating platform of thick ice that typically forms when an ice sheet (a large mass of glacier ice) moves down to a coastline and onto the surface of the ocean. These ice shelves are only found in the Antarctic, Canada and Greenland, and can have thicknesses of up to 1000 meters.
A recent study, published in the latest issue of the journal Nature Geoscience, investigated a series of satellite imagery and radar measurements to establish the structure and location of extensive channels beneath the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf, situated in West Antarctica. The cohort of researchers involved in the study included scientists from the University of Bristol, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Exeter and the University of York, as well as the British Antarctic Survey.
In a recent press release, the authors describe the channels as surface scars that can allow water to be drained from beneath the Antarctica’s massive ice sheets. Based upon their data, the researchers were able to present predictions as to the path the meltwater would adopt.
The research team found that their predicted water flow routes, from the ice sheets, matched up with the channels of the floating ice shelves. Speaking to the Daily Mail, Dr. Anne Le Brocq, the study’s lead author, discussed the amazing find. Le Brocq claims the finding to have been a “Eureka moment,” when matching their predicted water flow paths to the ice shelf channels.
“Plumes” of Warm Ocean Water Cause Melting
Ultimately, the flow of water beneath the grounded ice sheet causes the development of channels within the ice shelf. Firstly, the meltwater flows from the grounded ice sheet into the ocean, just beneath the floating ice shelf. According to the researchers working on the project, this subglacial meltwater then has a knock-on impact, initiating ocean circulation beneath the ice shelves, which then creates “plumes” of water. These plumes then entrain warmer ocean water, triggering a higher rate of melting that carves out the afore-mentioned channels.
Trying to work out the flow patterns of this water, to identify these escaping “plumes,” is a difficult task to accomplish. However, according to Le Brocq, the channels represent a tool that can be used to monitor what is happening beneath the ice.
Strangely, these channels don’t appear in every ice shelf. Le Brocq states that her team simply does not understand why this is the case.
However, the team do not believe the process to be directly related to global warming; Le Brocq indicates that the melting is related to processes that take place beneath the ice sheet. However, in attempting to predict how the ice sheets will respond to future environmental change, she urges more research into these mechanisms be performed. In light of this, the team plan to develop computer prediction models to see how the ice shelves will likely respond to the flow of meltwater, as well as scrutinize the plume formations in further detail.
It is expected that these enormous, Eiffel Tower-sized channels could dictate the future stability and strength of the Antarctica’s ice shelves, whilst researchers expect to learn more about the potential environmental factors that influence transformation of the ice, as a consequence.
By: James Fenner