Climate change has long impacted West Antarctica but East Antarctica is remote and cold so its ice sheets have been fairly resilient amid a warming planet. Scientists, however, have now found compelling evidence that the region starts to feel the impact of climate change as well.
Lake Of Freshwater Underneath Roi Baudouin Ice Shelf
In a new study published in Nature Climate Change, researchers examined East Antarctica's Roi Baudouin ice shelf, which floats in the ocean. Using satellite measurements, models and field surveys, they found a massive lake of freshwater underneath the ice shelf, which indicates that melting has occurred.
The researchers drilled through the ice and discovered englacial lakes in between the surface of the ice shelf and its base that is in contact with the ocean. The researchers discovered 55 lakes, and many of them were buried in the ice.
Dangers Of Melting Ice
The findings hint of a problem. Warmer temperatures cause melting of the ice shelves. Warmer ocean currents also eat away the ice from beneath. Meltwater on the surface curves canyons through ice, seep into fractures and fill the subsurface chambers with water.
The water would eventually become powerful enough to force apart the ice shelf. Broken up masses of ice would then melt more easily in the sea. Researchers call this phenomenon hydrofracturing.
"If this region can get warmer in the future, the meltwater production will enhance a lot, and we can only expect these features, these processes to be more present than they are now," said study researcher Jan Lenaerts, a glaciologist with the Utrecht University in the Netherlands. "With potential implications for hydrofracturing to happen and for ice shelf stability."
Increase In Sea Level
Glaciers that slide toward the sea, where they would begin melting, can cause considerable increase in sea levels that can endanger coastal cities worldwide. Antarctica is estimated to hold enough ice to raise the sea levels by about 200 feet if all the ice in the region melted. A study published in December last year also found that the melting of glaciers can force planet Earth to slightly wobble on its axis.
"Surface melt and subsequent firn air depletion can ultimately lead to disintegration of Antarctic ice shelves causing grounded glaciers to accelerate and sea level to rise," the researchers wrote in their study, which was published on Dec. 12.
"Ice-shelf grounding zones in East Antarctica, like their Antarctic Peninsula counterparts, are vulnerable to hydrofracturing," noted the study authors.