Sci-tech

Antarctica is melting more than scientists thought, and it's creating giant waterfalls

Antarctica is melting more than scientists thought, and it's creating giant waterfalls

"Most polar scientists have considered water moving across the surface of Antarctica to be extremely rare - but we found a lot of it over very large areas", he said in a statement.

Climate models will need to incorporate this new twist in Antarctic meltwater, and their predictions should become less dire than they now are. The study, the first to extensively map meltwater, found 700 seasonal systems of ponds, channels, streams.

Antarctica is not the icy world scientists thought it was.

Dr Jeremy Ely, from Sheffield University's geography department, said: "If melted completely, Antarctica's ice sheets contain enough water to raise global sea levels by around 58 metres".

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It's not that scientists didn't know there were streams and waterfalls in Antarctica. These sections then tumble into the ocean, contributing to sea level increases in the process. The channels spotted 604 kilometers towards the south pole and some of them 1,300 meters above the sea level where it's rare or even impossible to have running water.

Two new papers analyze satellite imagery of Antarctica dating back to 1973 and aerial photography dating back to 1947 for evidence of meltwater.

Most of the melt ponds and streams form near rock outcrops or bluish ice exposed by the sharp winds that scour snow from the surface; these features are darker than the surrounding ice and so absorb more solar energy.

The survey also showed that numerous meltwater streams and channels begin near mountains poking through glaciers or in areas with little or no snow, exposing the underlying bluish ice.

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He said: "Despite extensive studies in Greenland and observations of individual meltwater drainage systems in Antarctica, we previously had little understanding of how water moves across the surface of Antarctica's ice sheets". At least when it comes to breaking up ice sheets.

During the southern hemisphere summer, the melt-water is efficiently drained through sinkholes and a "roaring 400-foot-wide waterfall into the ocean", Bell said.

"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".

Kingslake and Bell plan to dive deeper into the data to start understanding why ice shelves exhibit different drainage systems and to find out where the meltwater is going, as some could seep into surface snow instead of staying at the surface. Warming oceans melt ice shelves around from the bottom up, while warming air temperatures melt them from the top down, creating pools and rivers of liquid water on the continent's surface.

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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.


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