New Survey Finds Meltwater Is Flowing Across Antarctica

Rodiano Bonacci
Aprile 20, 2017

Some of these meltwater flows occur even at southern latitudes where scientists thought liquid water couldn't flow. These systems had been around for decades and while some were stationary ponds, others were made up of streams that transported water as far as 75 miles and fed melt ponds, the largest of which, on the Amery Ice Shelf, reached 50 miles long. Researchers and scientists from the Earth Institute at Columbia University recognized the Antarctic melt streams started back in the early 20th century.

Now though, we have the technology to build up a much more comprehensive picture of where these streams are flowing. "So we really can't tell what the future holds for any one particular ice shelf".

The surface of the remote Antarctic ice sheet may be a far more dynamic place than scientists imagined, new research suggests. "But we found a lot of it, over very large areas". During the summer, which corresponds to the Northern latitude winter, an extensive network of some 700 rivers, channels, and streams pop up.

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.

Antarctica, it turns out, is covered in meltwater that pools, trickles, streams, and roars across the ice. The pace of the damage will increase as temperatures continue to rise as a result of man-made global warming. Each "X" shows where an individual drainage system was identified.

Nothing is clear-cut yet though, and researchers spotted another meltwater stream channel on the Nansen ice shelf that they think might be helping to keep it together, by efficiently removing water from the shelf out to the ocean.

Scientists are also studying Greenland for clues as to how these streams might develop and affect sea level rises - between 2011 and 2014, about 70 percent of the 269 billion tons of ice and snow lost by Greenland to the oceans was due to meltwater.

The systems, described in two new studies published Wednesday in the journal Nature, vary from a collection of ponds to a roaring seasonal river that dumps meltwater into the ocean via a 400-foot-wide waterfall.

"We're working hard to figure out if this stuff is relevant to sea-level predictions", he says.

Because meltwater streams were thought to be relatively rare in Antarctica before this, they haven't been extensively studied in the past, according to glaciologist Douglas MacAyeal from the University of Chicago, who wasn't involved in the study.

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