Antarctica could be affected by climate change, including global warming, to an even greater extent than previously estimated, according to a series of new studies of the southernmost continent.

The Great Ice Sheet of West Antarctica may now be experiencing conditions that could lead to irreversible ice loss, potentially leading to a sea level rise up to 10 feet. Similar conditions now appear to be taking place on the other end of the frozen continent. There, a massive glacier is also melting, and water released from that formation could cause sea levels to climb by an additional 10 feet, climatologists are warning.

Investigators have flown over the Totten Glacier in East Antarctica, where thinning of ice cover is taking place faster than anywhere else on the continent. They found that the most likely reason the ice there is melting so quickly is because liquid water is flowing under the ice. A valley has recently been found under the Totten Glacier where liquid water is flowing beneath the formation, which is more than 40 miles long and almost 19 miles wide.

Ice sheets extend from the glacier into surrounding water, and as warming continues, loss of ice will become more dramatic. This same process has already been recorded in western areas of Antarctica.

"The idea of warm ocean water eroding the ice in West Antarctica, what we're finding is that may well be applicable in East Antarctica as well," Martin Siegert from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London said.

Some climatologists believe that as global warming becomes more pronounced, the heating will result in additional snowfall in Antarctica, reducing total sea level rise. However, new analysis of real-world precipitation shows that effect is not likely to be as dramatic as some models predict.

"Intuitively, it makes sense that as it warms and more moisture is in the atmosphere, that it will fall as snow in Antarctica. The problem is that we're not really seeing that through the last 50 years of observations," Peter Clark of Oregon State University said.

Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research investigators conducted a study showing snow buildup on the glaciers of Antarctica can press down on the features, adding additional forces pushing the ice sheets into the waters surrounding the frozen continent.

The East Antarctic Ice Sheet was thought to be fairly stable compared to its western cousin. However, these new studies show global warming may be having a major impact in the region, the effects of which may be felt far from that barren continent.

The loss of glaciers and ice sheets in Antarctica can result in a dramatic rise in water levels in the northern hemisphere, including waters around the United States, researchers have found. These new findings could serve as a warning for people in the industrialized world, researchers believe.

Photo: Christopher Michel | Flickr

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