Alarming Discoveries

Alarming Discoveries: Disturbing State of Antarctica’s Ice Shelves


New research utilizing data from the Copernicus Sentinel-1 and ESA’s CryoSat satellite missions has revealed troubling findings about the condition of Antarctica’s ice shelves. The study shows that 40% of these floating extensions of the ice sheet have significantly decreased in volume over the past 25 years. While this emphasizes the rapid impact of climate change on the southernmost continent, the situation regarding ice deterioration is not uniform.

The study, funded by ESA’s Earth Observation Science for Society program and recently published in the journal Science Advances, analyzed 100,000 satellite radar images to provide a comprehensive assessment of the well-being of Antarctica’s ice shelves.

These massive floating structures play a crucial role in stabilizing the glaciers in the region by acting as barriers that slow down the flow of ice into the ocean.

The situation in Antarctica is compounded by the fact that as the ice shelves diminish, the rate of ice loss from the ice sheet increases.

The research team, led by scientists from the University of Leeds, discovered that out of the 162 ice shelves around Antarctica, 71 have decreased in volume, contributing to the release of nearly 67 trillion tonnes of meltwater into the ocean. This not only exacerbates the issue of ice loss but also has potential implications for ocean circulation patterns due to the introduction of freshwater.

Furthermore, the team found that nearly all the ice shelves on the western side of Antarctica experienced ice loss. In contrast, most of the ice shelves on the eastern side remained largely intact or even increased in mass.

Benjamin Davison, a research fellow at the University of Leeds, explained, “There is a varied picture of ice-shelf deterioration, and this is related to the ocean temperature and currents surrounding Antarctica. The western side is exposed to warm water, which can rapidly erode the ice shelves from below, while much of East Antarctica is currently shielded by a band of cold water along the coast.”

Antarctica is a vast continent, and the seas on the western side experience different currents and winds compared to the east, causing warmer water to flow underneath the ice shelves on the western side.

As a result, the Getz Ice Shelf suffered some of the most significant losses, with 1.9 trillion tonnes of ice disappearing over the 25-year study period. Only 5% of this loss was due to calving, where large chunks of ice break away from the shelf and fall into the ocean. The rest was attributed to melting at the base of the ice shelf.

Similarly, the Pine Island Ice Shelf lost 1.3 trillion tonnes of ice, with around a third of this loss (450 billion tonnes) attributable to calving. The remainder was a result of melting from underneath the ice shelf.

In contrast, the Amery Ice Shelf, situated on the opposite side of Antarctica and surrounded by much colder waters, actually gained 1.2 trillion tonnes of ice.

Dr. Davison remarked, “We expected most ice shelves to go through cycles of rapid but short-lived shrinkage, followed by slow regrowth. Instead, we see that almost half of them are shrinking with no signs of recovery.”

The findings highlight the urgency of addressing climate change and its impact on Antarctica’s ice shelves, as these structures play a vital role in maintaining the stability of the region’s ice sheet and managing global sea-level rise.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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