Antarctic ice is melting faster then expected, which could lead to rising sea levels worldwide.
University of Leeds researchers studied three years of images of Antarctica, taken from space. The CryoSat-2 satellite, operated by the European Space Agency (ESA), is equipped with an altimeter, allowing researchers to measure the height of the Antarctic land form. That mission was launched in 2010, and the images that were used in the newest study were taken between the first year of the mission and 2013. The data taken were compared to images collected between 2005 and 2010.
Satellite images show the frozen continent could be losing as much as 175 billion tons of ice each year. Most of these losses were recorded in coastal areas, but surface ice was reduced around the continent, up to 135 miles from the South Pole.
The UK Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling coordinated environmentalists from a variety of academic institutions to conduct the study. This is the first time changes in ice elevations have been conducted over the entire continent.
Much of the melting is taking place in the Amundsen Sea sector, located in West Antarctica. New research indicates that melting ice in that area could be past the "point of no return," which could fuel further losses of ice mass.
Although 87 percent of the losses were seen in those areas, significant melting was also recorded on the eastern half of Antarctica. The Pine Island, Smith, and Thwaites glaciers are losing between 13 and 25 feet of ice each year, according to the new data.
Cyrosat-2 has already collected far more data about the frozen continent than ever before available.
"This new dataset provides near-continuous (96%) coverage of the entire continent, extending to within 215 kilometres of the South Pole and leading to a fivefold increase in the sampling of coastal regions where the vast majority of all ice losses occur," researchers wrote in the article detailing their study.
Researchers estimate that if the entire ice sheet in western Antarctica were to melt, sea levels would rise by as much as 13 feet.
"The increased thinning we have detected in west Antarctica is a worrying development. It adds concrete evidence that dramatic changes are underway in this part of our planet," Andrew Shepherd from the University of Leeds, said.
Analysis of melting ice sheets in Antarctica was profiled in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.