Hundreds of Glaciers Melting Faster in Antarctica

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 6, 2007
Hundreds of glaciers in Antarctica are melting faster as the region's climate warms, a new satellite study has revealed.

As the rivers of ice flow into the ocean, they could cause global sea levels to rise higher and faster than scientists had previously predicted.

Satellite images of more than 300 glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula showed that they were flowing some 12 percent faster in 2003 than they were in 1993 (see an interactive map of Antarctica).

"It is increasingly apparent that glaciers can be sensitive on much shorter time scales than traditionally thought," said lead author Hamish Pritchard of the British Antarctic Survey.

"What is telling about [the study results] is that so many glaciers are behaving in such a similar way, and so quickly," he added.

"This is strong evidence for a big change in climate on a regional scale such as has been observed."

Pritchard noted that the Antarctic Peninsula's annual average air temperature has risen 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) since 1950, while near-surface ocean waters have warmed 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius).

Eighty-seven percent of the peninsula's glaciers have been retreating during the same period, he added.

The Antarctic findings may not be unique—they are similar to recent reports from coastal Greenland.

Will the "High Seas" Get Higher?

An Antarctic glacial meltdown could have dramatic impacts for ocean level rise.

The latest estimates for sea level rise cited by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are based largely on the melting of nonpolar glaciers and the expansion of warmer ocean waters.

The estimates do not account for the impact of dynamic effects like those seen in Antarctica, because the processes are poorly understood.

Dynamic effects are happening, Pritchard said.

"They are quite large in magnitude and are likely to get larger so that they could dominate the sea level rise signal.

"The importance of dynamic effects is that they can transfer ice very quickly into the sea, much quicker than melting the ice sheet or glacier surface and letting it run off as water."

Just how high could seas rise? Pritchard explained that no one can be sure.

"We're not yet at the stage where we can come up with new sea-level rise predictions except to say that it is very likely to be larger than the numbers in the IPCC report."

Pritchard and colleagues from British Antarctic Survey published their findings this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Glacial Splashdowns Like "Stack of Dominoes"

The study suggests that faster glacier flows are caused by a thinning of the glaciers' lowest layers, the sections that extend down through fjords and into the sea.

The weight of these lower layers is supported by seawater rather than by land. As the ice thins, the glaciers become more buoyant, allowing them to flow faster toward the sea.

"What we are finding is that these glaciers are very sensitive to the conditions at their ocean boundaries," said Ian Howat, a researcher with the University of Washington's Polar Science Center who is unaffiliated with the study.

"Apparently a relatively small amount of melting at this boundary, either from the increased air or ocean temperatures, is enough to destabilize the entire glacier.

"These glaciers act like a stack of dominoes, with a slight nudge at the front causing the entire stack to fall over," he added.

Howat cautioned that many aspects of glacial dynamics, and how they could react to climate change, remain mysterious.

"The question still remains as to whether the changes we're observing are permanent or are a more regular purging of the system," he said.

In the case of Greenland the amount of ice that the glaciers has lost is very small relative to the size of the ice sheet, he said, so the ice sheet could restabilize and even grow again with a small amount of cooling or increased precipitation.

"However the glaciers in Alaska or the Antarctic Peninsula aren't supplied by a vast ice sheet," Howat added, "so for them to regrow or even stabilize for the long term would take a much more drastic reversal in current climate trends."

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