Scientists describe how 'upside-down rivers' of warm water break Antarctica's ice shelf
Saturday, October 12, 2019
"Warm water circulation is attacking the undersides of these ice shelves at their most vulnerable points," said study co-author Karen Alley. The Wooster professor added, "These effects matter [...] But exactly how much, we don't yet know. We need to."
The researchers used satellite imagery to identify places where coastal ice sheets had melted, creating areas of open water called, which, they observed, occurred in the same places every year. From this, they concluded that warm water was reaching the ice sheets in the same places every year as well.
Because warmer water is more buoyant, says the study, it rises above cooler water, creating what the scientists describe as an "upside-down river" flowing underneath the layers of ice. Ice shelves tend to weaken as they move, forming cracks and crevasses at their edges and stretch points. Warm water, being on top, tends to become even more likely to find these cracks, so increasing the ice mass' melt rate.
Ice shelves are not actually part of the land mass with which they are associated. Rather, they float along the coast nearby. Because they can be prevented from drifting further away by high places in the ocean floor, they can in turn prevent land-associated ice masses from becoming detached.
"Now we're seeing a new process, where warm water cuts into the shelf from below," said study co-author Ted Scambos of CU Boulder's(CIRES). "Like scoring a plate of glass, the trough renders the shelf weak, and in a few decades, it's gone, freeing the ice sheet to ride out faster into the ocean."
- Brandon Spektor. "'Upside-Down Rivers' of Warm Water Are Carving Antarctica to Pieces" — , October 10, 2019
- Sam Blanchard. "Time-lapse footage taken over 15 years reveals the Antarctic melting away as warmer seawater flows around it" — , October 9, 2019
- Warm ocean water attacking edges of Antarctica's ice shelves" — , October 9, 2019. "
- Antarctica's "Upside-Down Rivers": Warming ocean water undercuts Antarctic ice shelves" — , March 16, 2016. "
- Karen E. Alley, Ted A. Scambos, Richard B. Alley, and Nicholas Holschuh. "Troughs developed in ice-stream shear margins precondition ice shelves for ocean-driven breakup" — , October 9, 2019