Scientists have identified a rapidly thinning glacier in Antarctica, which may have played a key role in helping increase water levels in the world's oceans in previous years.

In a study featured in the journal Nature, researchers from several science organizations including the University of Western Australia (UWA) and the University of Texas (UT) at Austin describe how large portions of the Totten Glacier located in eastern Antarctica have become fundamentally unstable over the past few years.

The Totten Glacier is considered to be the largest outlet of ice in the region and has served as a point of interest for scientists who study the Antarctic Ice Sheet's vulnerabilities. The history of the glacier, however, has remained largely unexplored until now.

Previous studies have suggested that this portion of the Antarctic Ice Sheet may have retreated before, but this recent work is the first of its kind to establish direct connections between the present-day Totten Glacier and the deteriorated landscape buried deep within the icy region.

Donald D. Blankenship, a senior researcher at UT's Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) and one of the authors of the study, explained that understanding the evolution of the ice sheet over the East Antarctic landscape as well as its points of vulnerabilities for rapid retreat allows them to predict what could potentially happen to the region in the coming years.

The Totten glacier's catchment serves as a collection basin for snow and ice that flow through it. Blankenship said that it is covered by close to two and a half miles of ice, enough to fill a sub-ice basin the size of the state of California at a depth of about one mile below sea level. This recent study demonstrates how the Totten Glacier's system could largely affect the world's sea level in just a brief period.

Blankenship and his colleagues made use of instruments onboard an aircraft to measure the ice and shape of the Antarctic landscape throughout five field campaigns. They equipped the aircraft with radar capable of assessing the ice that was several miles thick, as well as lasers to determine the elevation and shape of the ice surface.

The researchers also studied the sub-ice geology of the region using instruments that can detect the gravity of the Earth and the strengths of its magnetic field.

After analyzing the collected data, Blankenship and his colleagues discovered two zones in the Totten Glacier that were unstable and highly susceptible to rapid collapse. They found that the ice sheet has shifted back and forth from being stable to unstable several times in the past.

Alan Aitken, a researcher from the UWA's School of Earth and Environment and lead author of the study, warned that if the ice sheet were to experience another transition between stable and unstable, especially with the Earth's climate becoming increasingly warmer, it could cause the world's sea level to rapidly increase by more than a meter.

Photo: Andreas Kambanis | Flickr 

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