Buried Lakes Send Antarctica's Ice Slipping Faster Into the Sea, Study Shows

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"The only data set that existed before for this region was an over-ice traverse in 1965 to 1966," Studinger said. "And since then, no one has been there.

"It's so remote that it hasn't even been in the range of satellites until recently," he added.

But now, using two satellites called ICESat and RADARSAT, Studinger and colleagues were able to spot the lakes and see the ice moving above them.

The team identified the telltale signs of four under-ice lakes, the most prominent being the large, extremely flat patches of ice directly above each lake.

Scientists have discovered more than 140 under-ice lakes in Antarctica. But these newfound lakes are the first known in the eastern region and are among the biggest in all of Antarctica.

The ice sheet in the Recovery area generally flows toward the ocean at a rate of about 15 to 30 feet (5 to 10 meters) a year.

But where the ice runs across the newfound lakes, the researchers found it breaks up and becomes a rapidly moving ice stream.

Warming Link?

The new study is the first to show a direct link between Antarctica's under-ice lakes and the movement of the ice streams.

"Subglacial lakes may well be influencing ice-sheet flow on a much larger scale than we had thought previously," said Martin Siegert, a glaciologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland who was not involved in the study.

Previous research has examined the movement and interconnectedness of under-ice lakes in an attempt to piece together Antarctica's complex dynamics and how they will affect sea levels in the face of global warming.

Last year Siegert and colleagues found that smaller under-ice lakes can "jump" from one spot to another by flowing under the ice sheet.

And a study published last week showed that a massive ice stream in West Antarctica has a series of cascading lakes below it that contributes to the flow of ice into the sea.

These subglacial systems are insulated from the atmosphere, and so they will take thousands of years to respond to today's global warming, said David Marchant, a glaciologist at Boston University.

Nonetheless, Marchant added, "the formation of some subglacial lakes could ultimately lead to accelerated rates of sea-level rise."

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