The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which holds enough water to raise global seas by several feet, is thinning. Scientists have been warning of its collapse, based on theories, but with few firm predictions or timelines.
University of Washington researchers used detailed topography maps and computer modeling to show that the collapse appears to have already begun. The fast-moving Thwaites Glacier will likely disappear in a matter of centuries, researchers say, raising sea level by nearly 2 feet.
This is a photo of the Thwaites ice shelf taken during an October 2013 Operation IceBridge aerial survey.
Credit: James Yungel / NASA
This is a high-resolution map of Thwaites Glacier's thinning ice shelf. Warm circumpolar deep water is melting the underside of this floating shelf, leading to an ongoing speedup of Thwaites Glacier. This glacier now appears to be in the early stages of collapse, with full collapse potentially occurring within a few centuries. Collapse of this glacier would raise global sea level by several tens of centimeters, with a total rise by up to a few meters if it causes a broader collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Credit: David Shean / Univ. of Washington
That glacier also acts as a linchpin on the rest of the ice sheet, which contains enough ice to cause another 10 to 13 feet (3 to 4 meters) of global sea level rise. The study is published May 16 in Science.
"There's been a lot of speculation about the stability of marine ice sheets, and many scientists suspected that this kind of behavior is under way," said Ian Joughin, a glaciologist at the UW's Applied Physics Laboratory. "This study provides a more quantitative idea of the rates at which the collapse could take place."
The good news is that while the word "collapse" implies a sudden change, the fastest scenario is 200 years, and the longest is more than 1,000 years. The bad news is that such a collapse may be inevitable.
"Previously, when we saw thinning we didn't necessarily know whether the glacier could slow down later, spontaneously or through some feedback," Joughin said. "In our model simulations it looks like all the feedbacks tend to point toward it actually accelerating over time; there's no real stabilizing mechanism we can see."
Earlier warnings of collapse had been based on a simplified model of ice sitting in an inward-sloping basin. The topography around Antarctica, however, is complex. The new study used airborne radar, developed at the University of Kansas with funding from the National Science Foundation, to image through the thick ice and map the topography of the underlying bedrock, whose shape controls the ice sheet's long-term stability.
The mapping was done as part of NASA's Operation IceBridge, and included other instruments to measure the height of the ice sheet's rapidly thinning surface. In some places Thwaites Glacier has been losing tens of feet, or several meters, of elevation per year.
UW researchers combined that data with their own satellite measurements of ice surface speeds. Their computer model was able to reproduce the glacier's ice loss during the past 18 years, and they ran the model forward under different amounts of ocean-driven melting.
The place where the glacier meets land, the grounding line, now sits on a shallower ridge with a depth of about 2,000 feet (600 meters). Results show that as the ice edge retreats into the deeper part of the bay, the ice face will become steeper and, like a towering pile of sand, the fluid glacier will become less stable and collapse out toward the sea.
"Once it really gets past this shallow part, it's going to start to lose ice very rapidly," Joughin said.
The study considered future scenarios using faster or slower melt rates depending on the amount of future warming. The fastest melt rate led to the early stages lasting 200 years, after which the rapid-stage collapse began. The slowest melt rate kept most of the ice for more than a millennium before the onset of rapid collapse. The most likely scenarios may be between 200 and 500 years, Joughin said.
"All of our simulations show it will retreat at less than a millimeter of sea level rise per year for a couple of hundred years, and then, boom, it just starts to really go," Joughin said.
Researchers did not model the more chaotic rapid collapse, but the remaining ice is expected to disappear within a few decades.
The thinning of the ice in recent decades is most likely related to climate change, Joughin said. More emissions would lead to more melting and faster collapse, but other factors make it hard to predict how much time we could buy under different scenarios.
The other co-authors are Benjamin Smith at the UW and Brooke Medley, who did her doctorate at the UW and is now at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA.
For more information, contact Joughin at 206-221-3177 or email@example.com.
Hannah Hickey | Eurek Alert!
New Study Will Help Find the Best Locations for Thermal Power Stations in Iceland
19.01.2017 | University of Gothenburg
Water - as the underlying driver of the Earth’s carbon cycle
17.01.2017 | Max-Planck-Institut für Biogeochemie
An important step towards a completely new experimental access to quantum physics has been made at University of Konstanz. The team of scientists headed by...
Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...
Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.
While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...
Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales
Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...
Among the general public, solar thermal energy is currently associated with dark blue, rectangular collectors on building roofs. Technologies are needed for aesthetically high quality architecture which offer the architect more room for manoeuvre when it comes to low- and plus-energy buildings. With the “ArKol” project, researchers at Fraunhofer ISE together with partners are currently developing two façade collectors for solar thermal energy generation, which permit a high degree of design flexibility: a strip collector for opaque façade sections and a solar thermal blind for transparent sections. The current state of the two developments will be presented at the BAU 2017 trade fair.
As part of the “ArKol – development of architecturally highly integrated façade collectors with heat pipes” project, Fraunhofer ISE together with its partners...
19.01.2017 | Event News
10.01.2017 | Event News
09.01.2017 | Event News
20.01.2017 | Awards Funding
20.01.2017 | Materials Sciences
20.01.2017 | Life Sciences