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New Survey Finds Meltwater Is Flowing Across Antarctica
21 April 2017, 02:56 | Ross Houston
Meltwater Is Now Streaming Across Antarctica
"This study tells us there's already a lot more melting going on than we thought", Robin Bell, who is a geophysicist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told Kevin Krajick.
Scientists are also studying Greenland for clues as to how these streams might develop and affect sea level rises - between 2011 and 2014, about 70 percent of the 269 billion tons of ice and snow lost by Greenland to the oceans was due to meltwater.
Iceberg shaped by melting, Drake Passage, Palmer Peninsula, Antarctica.
But the research team used aerial photography and satellite imagery to find that it moves vast distances across the surface of the ice sheets on to shelves.
Much of Antarctica's ice is littered with seasonally flowing meltwater streams.
"Quickly we started to realize that they're much more widespread than people thought", Kingslake said.
According to the survey which was documented in two papers published in the journal Nature (one and two), some of the meltwater bodies can grow to gargantuan proportions.
They found almost 700 drainage systems that formed during the summer melt season, some of which were found farther inland and at higher altitudes than the researchers expected. "And it's been [forming] since 1973 and we didn't really know about it". As the ice melts, liquid water will create a path downhill through overlying snow.
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 researchers observed that meltwater ponds lurking in Antarctica can be up to several miles wide.
The new research shows that during warm years with considerable melt, a river system forms that eventually ends in a 400-foot-wide waterfall that can siphon off an entire year's worth of surface melt in just a week. At least when it comes to breaking up ice sheets. This causes melting of ice. But an efficient river system like that found on Nansen could actually protect the ice shelf, Bell and her colleagues posit.
It's not clear yet from the data whether the meltwater rivers have been growing. Glaciers are darker as compared to other snow covered ice-sheets and hence absorb more solar radiations.
"So it's important that we understand how and where meltwater forms, moves, drains and the impact it can have on ice shelves, which can be prone to collapse".
Newly recorded drainages usually start near mountains finding their way down through glaciers.
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. Decades of satellite imagery and aerial photography have revealed an extensive network of lakes and rivers transporting liquid meltwater across the continent's ice shelves - almost 700 systems of connected pools and streams in total.
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