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Giant project to test Antarctic ice stability

10.05.2004


If rising global temperatures cause the ice streams of Western Antarctica to break up, major cities and agricultural heartlands the world over would be submerged. Researchers from the University of Leeds’ School of Geography are set to embark on a £1m, three-year project to find out exactly how stable they are.



The project, the biggest of its kind to date, will drill up to 2.2km down into the Rutford ice stream in Western Antarctica to determine its stability and see how close it is to breaking up.

There are about a dozen ice streams in Western Antarctica, moving currents of ice on the ice sheet which are hundreds of kilometres long and up to 25km wide. It is thought that if they begin to melt they could break up, leading to even more rapid melting and a disastrous increase in sea levels.


The researcher, Tavi Murray of geography, will collaborate with British Antarctic Survey scientists to drill down into the ice sheet using hot water drilling equipment.

They will take samples from the ice column, collect sediments to see whether there was sea rather than ice at any time in the past, carry out seismic tests and monitor the ways water flows under the huge pressures of the ice above.

Dr Murray said: “Ice streams are like plugs in a plughole and we want to find out what will make the plug bigger or smaller. We hope to find out whether the ice stream has been stable in the past so we can determine its future stability. If it starts to melt it would begin to float and we could see a catastrophic break-up.”

It is estimated that if the Antarctic ice sheet melted, sea levels would rise by 75 metres, submerging most of the world’s major cities and agricultural areas.

Vanessa Bridge | University of Leeds
Further information:
http://reporter.leeds.ac.uk/498/s5.htm

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