How Solar Heat Drives Rapid Melting Of Parts Of Antarctica's Largest Ice Shelf

How Solar Heat Drives Rapid Melting Of Parts Of Antarctica's Largest Ice Shelf Scientists measured the thickness and basal melt of the Ross Ice Shelf. Supplied, CC BY-ND

The ocean that surrounds Antarctica plays a crucial role in regulating the mass balance of the continent’s ice cover. We now know that the thinning of ice that affects nearly a quarter of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is clearly linked to the ocean.

The connection between the Southern Ocean and Antarctica’s ice sheet lies in ice shelves – massive slabs of glacial ice, many hundreds of metres thick, that float on the ocean. Ice shelves grind against coastlines and islands and buttress the outflow of grounded ice. When the ocean erodes ice shelves from below, this buttressing action is reduced.

While some ice shelves are thinning rapidly, others remain stable, and the key to understanding these differences lies within the hidden oceans beneath ice shelves. Our recently published research explores the ocean processes that drive melting of the world’s largest ice shelf. It shows that a frequently overlooked process is driving rapid melting of a key part of the shelf.

Ocean fingerprints on ice sheet melt

Rapid ice loss from Antarctica is frequently linked to Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW). This relatively warm (+1C) and salty water mass, which is found at depths below 300 metres around Antarctica, can drive rapid melting. For example, in the south-east Pacific, along West Antarctica’s Amundsen Sea coast, CDW crosses the continental shelf in deep channels and enters ice shelf cavities, driving rapid melting and thinning.

Interestingly, not all ice shelves are melting quickly. The largest ice shelves, including the vast Ross and Filchner-Ronne ice shelves, appear close to equilibrium. They are largely isolated from CDW by the cold waters that surround them.

How Solar Heat Drives Rapid Melting Of Parts Of Antarctica's Largest Ice Shelf The satellite image shows that strong offshore winds drive sea ice away from the north-western Ross Ice Shelf, exposing the dark ocean surface. Solar heating warms the water enough to drive melting. Figure modified from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0356-0. Supplied, CC BY-ND

The contrasting effects of CDW and cold shelf waters, combined with their distribution, explain much of the variability in the melting we observe around Antarctica today. But despite ongoing efforts to probe the ice shelf cavities, these hidden seas remain among the least explored parts of Earth’s oceans.

It is within this context that our research explores a new and hard-won dataset of oceanographic observations and melt rates from the world’s largest ice shelf.

Beneath the Ross Ice Shelf

In 2011, we used a 260 metre deep borehole that had been melted through the north-western corner of the Ross Ice Shelf, seven kilometres from the open ocean, to deploy instruments that monitor ocean conditions and melt rates beneath the ice. The instruments remained in place for four years.

The observations showed that far from being a quiet back water, conditions beneath the ice shelf are constantly changing. Water temperature, salinity and currents follow a strong seasonal cycle, which suggests that warm surface water from north of the ice front is drawn southward into the cavity during summer.

Melt rates at the mooring site average 1.8 metres per year. While this rate is much lower than ice shelves impacted by warm CDW, it is ten times higher than the average rate for the Ross Ice Shelf. Strong seasonal variability in the melt rate suggests that this melting hotspot is linked to the summer inflow.

How Solar Heat Drives Rapid Melting Of Parts Of Antarctica's Largest Ice Shelf Summer sea surface temperature surrounding Antarctica (a) and in the Ross Sea (b) showing the strong seasonal warming within the Ross Sea polynya. Figure modified from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0356-0. Supplied, CC BY-ND

To assess the scale of this effect, we used a high-precision radar to map basal melt rates across a region of about 8,000 square kilometres around the mooring site. Careful observations at around 80 sites allowed us to measure the vertical movement of the ice base and internal layers within the ice shelf over a one-year interval. We could then determine how much of the thinning was caused by basal melting.

Melting was fastest near the ice front where we observed short-term melt rates of up to 15 centimetres per day – several orders of magnitude higher than the ice shelf average rate. Melt rates reduced with distance from the ice front, but rapid melting extended far beyond the mooring site. Melting from the survey region accounted for some 20% of the total from the entire ice shelf.

The bigger picture

Why is this region of the shelf melting so much more quickly than elsewhere? As is so often the case in the ocean, it appears that winds play a key role.

During winter and spring, strong katabatic winds sweep across the western Ross Ice Shelf and drive sea ice from the coast. This leads to the formation of an area that is free of sea ice, a polynya, where the ocean is exposed to the atmosphere. During winter, this area of open ocean cools rapidly and sea ice grows. But during spring and summer, the dark ocean surface absorbs heat from the sun and warms, forming a warm surface pool with enough heat to drive the observed melting.

Although the melt rates we observe are far lower than those seen on ice shelves influenced by CDW, the observations suggest that for the Ross Ice Shelf, surface heat is important.

Given this heat is closely linked to surface climate, it is likely that the predicted reductions in sea ice within the coming century will increase basal melt rates. While the rapid melting we observed is currently balanced by ice inflow, glacier models show that this is a structurally critical region where the ice shelf is pinned against Ross Island. Any increase in melt rates could reduce buttressing from Ross Island, increasing the discharge of land-based ice, and ultimately add to sea levels.

While there is still much to learn about these processes, and further surprises are certain, one thing is clear. The ocean plays a key role in the dynamics of Antarctica’s ice sheet and to understand the stability of the ice sheet we must look to the ocean.The Conversation

About The Author

Craig Stewart, Marine Physicist, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know

by Joseph Romm
0190866101The essential primer on what will be the defining issue of our time, Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know® is a clear-eyed overview of the science, conflicts, and implications of our warming planet. From Joseph Romm, Chief Science Advisor for National Geographic's Years of Living Dangerously series and one of Rolling Stone's "100 people who are changing America," Climate Change offers user-friendly, scientifically rigorous answers to the most difficult (and commonly politicized) questions surrounding what climatologist Lonnie Thompson has deemed "a clear and present danger to civilization.". Available On Amazon

Climate Change: The Science of Global Warming and Our Energy Future second edition Edition

by Jason Smerdon
0231172834This second edition of Climate Change is an accessible and comprehensive guide to the science behind global warming. Exquisitely illustrated, the text is geared toward students at a variety of levels. Edmond A. Mathez and Jason E. Smerdon provide a broad, informative introduction to the science that underlies our understanding of the climate system and the effects of human activity on the warming of our planet.Mathez and Smerdon describe the roles that the atmosphere and ocean play in our climate, introduce the concept of radiation balance, and explain climate changes that occurred in the past. They also detail the human activities that influence the climate, such as greenhouse gas and aerosol emissions and deforestation, as well as the effects of natural phenomena.  Available On Amazon

The Science of Climate Change: A Hands-On Course

by Blair Lee, Alina Bachmann
194747300XThe Science of Climate Change: A Hands-On Course uses text and eighteen hands-on activities to explain and teach the science of global warming and climate change, how humans are responsible, and what can be done to slow or stop the rate of global warming and climate change. This book is a complete, comprehensive guide to an essential environmental topic. Subjects covered in this book include: how molecules transfer energy from the sun to warm the atmosphere, greenhouse gases, the greenhouse effect, global warming, the Industrial Revolution, the combustion reaction, feedback loops, the relationship between weather and climate, climate change, carbon sinks, extinction, carbon footprint, recycling, and alternative energy. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.

 

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

EVIDENCE

Did Scientists Get Climate Change Wrong?
by Sabine Hossenfelder
Interview with Prof Tim Palmer from the University of Oxford.
How Climate Change Affects Wildfires
by NBC News
NYU environmental studies professor David Kanter explains how climate change is creating the perfect conditions for…
Warning of 'Untold Human Suffering,' Over 11,000 Scientists From Around the World Declare Climate Emergency
Warning of Untold Human Suffering, Over 11,000 Scientists From Around the World Declare Climate Emergency
by Julia Conley
"Scientists have a culture of reticence when it comes to making statements like this, but the emergency is rapidly…
New Land Height Metric Raises Sea Level Rise Risk
New Land Height Metric Raises Sea Level Rise Risk
by Tim Radford
Millions of us now live in danger: we could be at risk from future high tides and winds, says a new approach to…
The Science Of Drought Is Complex But The Message On Climate Change Is Clear
The Science Of Drought Is Complex But The Message On Climate Change Is Clear
by Ben Henley, et al
The issue of whether Australia’s current drought is caused by climate change has been seized on by some media…
Understanding Natural Climate Cycles
by NOVA PBS
The climate has changed on a schedule for millennia.
"Climate Predictions and Projections" by Jim Hurrell (Climate Change Symposium)
by Jim Hurrell
Professor Jim Hurrell presents "Climate Predictions and Projections in the Coming Decades: Uncertainty due to Natural…
Understanding Climate Change Science On Oceans And The Cryosphere
by CBC Nova Scotia
The United Nations panel dedicated to reviewing the science of climate change recently released a dense new report…

LATEST VIDEOS

Did Scientists Get Climate Change Wrong?
by Sabine Hossenfelder
Interview with Prof Tim Palmer from the University of Oxford.
The New Normal: Climate Change Poses Challenges For Minnesota Farmers
by KMSP-TV Minneapolis-St. Paul
Spring brought a deluge of rain in southern Minnesota and it never seemed to stop.
Report: Today's Kids' Health Will Be Imperiled by Climate Change
by VOA News
An international report from researchers at 35 institutions says climate change will threaten the health and quality of…
How Supercharged Trash Gas Could Produce More Green Energy
by InnerSelf Staff
Synthetic compounds called “siloxanes” from everyday products like shampoo and motor oil are finding their way into…
300 Million Face Severe Risk of Climate-Fueled Coastal Flooding by 2050
by Democracy Now!
As a shocking new report finds that many coastal cities will be flooded by rising sea levels by 2050, Chile’s President…
Climate Warning: California Continues To Burn, Data Estimates Of Global Flooding
by MSNBC
Ben Strauss, CEO and Chief Scientist of Climate Central joins MTP Daily to discuss alarming new information about…
Stanford Climate Solutions
by Stanford
Climate change has brought us to a defining moment in human history.
Buying Renewable Energy From Your Neighbor
by NBC News
Brooklyn Microgrid, a project of parent company LO3 Energy, is looking to disrupt the more than 100-year-old energy…

LATEST ARTICLES

Did Scientists Get Climate Change Wrong?
by Sabine Hossenfelder
Interview with Prof Tim Palmer from the University of Oxford.
The New Normal: Climate Change Poses Challenges For Minnesota Farmers
by KMSP-TV Minneapolis-St. Paul
Spring brought a deluge of rain in southern Minnesota and it never seemed to stop.
Dwindling Tropical Rainforests Mean Lost Medicines Yet To Be Discovered In Their Plants
Dwindling Tropical Rainforests Mean Lost Medicines Yet To Be Discovered In Their Plants
by Walter Suza
Growing up in Tanzania, I knew that fruit trees were useful. Climbing a mango tree to pick a fruit was a common thing…
Report: Today's Kids' Health Will Be Imperiled by Climate Change
by VOA News
An international report from researchers at 35 institutions says climate change will threaten the health and quality of…
Building With Bamboo Can Cool The Climate
Building With Bamboo Can Cool The Climate
by Kieran Cooke
If you want to cut global temperatures try building with bamboo, say UK-based researchers studying its thermal…
To Win A Climate Election, Parties Need Ambition, Not Compromise With The Fossil Fuel Industry
To Win A Climate Election, Parties Need Ambition, Not Compromise With The Fossil Fuel Industry
by Marc Hudson
The UK will go to the polls on December 12 for the third time in four years. Climate change didn’t make waves in…
3 Ways Cities Can Prepare For Climate Emergencies
3 Ways Cities Can Prepare For Climate Emergencies
by Ryan Plummer, et al
Cities are on the front line of climate change. While their footprints cover a mere two per cent of the Earth’s…
How Green Roofs Can Protect City Streets From Flooding
How Green Roofs Can Protect City Streets From Flooding
by Catherine Howell, et al
Spring and summer 2017 have been among the wettest on record in eastern North America.