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Scientists Worry About Flowing Water Systems In Antarctica

First Posted: Apr 20, 2017 06:17 AM EDT
NASA's Operation IceBridge Maps Changes To Antartica's Ice Mass
Ice floats near the coast of West Antarctica as viewed from a window of a NASA Operation IceBridge airplane.
(Photo : Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Previous studies showed that portions of Antarctica's Western Peninsula are melting at an alarming rate. However, scientists believed that the rest of the continent is safe from melting during the hot summer months -- but their beliefs proved wrong.

In fact, according to The Washington Post, the surface of the remote Antarctic ice sheet may be even more dynamic than scientists anticipated. Decades of satellite imagery and aerial photography showed that the Antarctic ice actually has an extensive network of rivers and lakes that are transporting liquid meltwater across the ice shelves.

The findings could upend the current understanding of the meltwater's role in its interaction with the ice sheets. For instance, liquid water may run for miles across the continent, and this worries scientists. If the network of meltwater is as vast as it now appears, the drainage systems could carry water from other parts of the ice shelves into the more vulnerable areas. If the ice shelves weaken and break off due to the meltwater, they can release a flood of ice into the ocean, thus the beginning of the rise in sea levels.

National Geographic explained that it is more complex than just ice breaking off. By definition, the ice shelves, after all, are already floating in a body of water. However, climatologist Rob DeConto at the University of Massachiussetts-Amherst noted that some ice shelves serve as buttresses and can impede the seaward flow of the ice sheet on the land behind them, losing them then accelerating the flow of ice from land to water, eventually becoming a spigot that could raise the sea levels.

Study co-author Robin Bell from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory explained that it is like letting bouncers leave the entrances of bars. These solid ice shelves are like the gatekeepers that keep the water and ice at bay.

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