A first of its kind continent-wide survey of Antarctica revealed that the ice-capped continent has a surprisingly vast network of rivers and lakes, which make their way through the ice shelves of the landmass.
These rivers flow with melting water over many parts of Antarctica during the continent's brief summer season.
The discovery of lakes and river streams is not new for the researchers. However, scientists earlier assumed that these water networks were confined only to the warm locations of the continent, mostly to the northern part.
What Is Antarctic Meltwater?
Meltwater is a part of Antarctica's natural water cycle. These water streams have been crisscrossing the continent for decades and scientists have systematically classified them for years.
After a thorough observation and analysis, scientists were surprised to find that these meltwater networks were much more vast and extensive than in the past.
Some of the meltwater networks are quite big such as the Amery Ice Shelf, which comprises streams that transport meltwater up to 75 miles at a row.
These meltwater systems fill up the ponds on the surface of the ice shelf, which can be over 50 miles in length.
Discovery Of Lakes And River Streams In Antarctica: How Did The Researchers Find?
According to the researchers, the creation of river streams, ponds, and lakes occurs when there is a rise in temperature. Therefore, global warming could "quickly magnify their influence on sea level."
To discover how wide the meltwater drainage system ran all over the continent, the study's lead author Jonathan Kingslake and his team analyzed pervious surface water photos captured from military aircrafts from 1947, as well as satellite imagery post 1973.
The researchers discovered a seasonal network of 700 ponds, pools, rivers, braided streams, and channels fringing Antarctica's sides. The meltwater networks originate nearly "375 miles from the South Pole" and is roughly 4,300 feet over sea level. Previously, it was believed that it would be unusual to improbable for liquid water to flow through in this region.
"This is not in the future--this is widespread now, and has been for decades. I think most polar scientists have considered water moving across the surface of Antarctica to be extremely rare. But we found a lot of it, over very large areas," said Kingslake
Several of the newly-discovered drainages originate close to the "mountains poking through glaciers." They also originate in places where powerful winds have exposed underlying bluish ice, which is more prone to absorbing sunlight and, therefore, may melt easily.
Effect Of The Meltwater Drainages On Ice Shelves
The authors of the study bear contradictory views on the effect meltwater drainage has on Antarctica's ice shelves.
A team of glaciologists fear that in the near future these meltwater systems can result in the ice shelves collapsing. For the unfamiliar, the huge ice shelves of Antarctica surround three quarters of the continent and stop the land glaciers from getting released into the ocean water.
With the rise in temperature due to climate change, warmer meltwater from drainage systems will pool underneath these floating ice shelves, eroding them in the process. Scientists anticipate that a time will come when these huge ice shelves will break off, resulting in the land glaciers getting released into the ocean. The most recent example of such an incident in the disintegration of the Larsen Ice Shelf. If this catastrophe occurs, ocean water levels will rise dramatically and endanger our planet.
On the other hand, Robin Bell, co-author of the research, led another associated study and found that these drainage systems may have helped the ice shelves on West Antarctica stay together despite climatic upswings.
Both the studies have been published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, April 19.
Watch the below video taken by Won Sang Lee of Korea Polar Research to see a meltwater waterfall in Antarctica first hand.