Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Warm Ocean Rapidly Melting Antarctic Ice Shelf from Below

16.09.2013
For five years, a scientific expedition tried reaching Pine Island Glacier ice shelf in a remote, wind-ridden corner of Antarctica. The obstacles to get to the ice shelf were extreme, but the science goal was simple: to measure how fast the sea was melting the 37-mile long ice tongue from underneath by drilling through the ice shelf.

The international team, led by NASA's emeritus glaciologist Robert Bindschadler and funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA, had to abort their mission in 2007 due to logistical challenges after becoming the first people to ever land on the ice shelf.


Drilling station and remote field camp on the Pine Island Glacier in 2012. Image Credit: Salvatore Consalvi

On their next try, in 2011, bad weather prevented the scientists from reaching the ice shelf until it was too late in the field season to carry out their science. It wasn't until December 2012 that the team was finally able to install scientific instruments.

Those measurements taken on and below the Pine Island Glacier ice shelf have yielded their first scientific results, determining the rate at which warm sea water is eating away the ice from underneath the floating portion of the glacier.

In a paper published in the journal Science on Sept. 13, the team describes how at one of their study sites, halfway down the ice shelf, the melt rate was as high as 2.36 inches (6 centimeters) per day.

"This is the first observation of the actual melt rate underneath the ice shelf," said Timothy Stanton, an oceanographer at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and lead author of the paper. "We have observations using remote sensing of various kinds, but these are actual in situ measurements."

The measurements also detected differences in melt rates across the channel system that runs underneath the ice shelf, Stanton said. Such features are important for adjusting models so they can accurately predict ice melt and its contribution to sea level rise.

“Our direct measurements are consistent with the larger scale averages that remote sensing data have provided, but our data capture an enormous fine scale variability of the basal melting rate that remote sensing can't resolve,” Bindschadler said. “Using only the average melt rates would not lead to a correct understanding of the actual ocean-ice interaction processes taking place in the boundary layer.”

Ice shelves buttress seaward glaciers, slowing the speed at which these rivers of ice dump their contents into the sea. If an ice shelf is weakened at its grounding line, the point where the glacier loses its grip on the land and starts floating, it allows the ice to flow faster, which impacts sea level. Pine Island Glacier and its neighbor, Thwaites Glacier, drain a large fraction of the West Antarctic ice shelf and are of great importance to its stability.

Research shows that melting of the underside of Antarctic ice shelves is ultimately driven by changes in the southernmost atmospheric circulation. Strong westerly winds push the frigid top water layer of the Southern Ocean away from land, which allows deeper, warmer water to raise and spill over the border of the Antarctic continental shelf. Since the weight of land ice tilts the continental shelf inland, streams of warm water can travel all the way to the ice shelf's grounding line, where they melt the ice. The resulting warm, fresh melt water rises against the underside of the ice shelf along the length of the ice shelf and carves melt channels that look like inverted river valleys.

To study the melt rates within these channels and observe the ocean cavity beneath the ice shelf, the team set up three study sites on the ice shelf during December 2012 and January 2013. All three camps, named Drill A, B and C, were in the middle of the ice shelf, to avoid the sides and the grounding line -- all of them heavily crevassed areas.

At the three campsites, the researchers used a hot-water drill to penetrate the 1,460-foot (450-meter) thick ice shelf. They then lowered through the holes a suite of oceanographic instruments, developed by Stanton, to measure the physical properties of the seawater beneath. At each drill site, a rigid pole allowed to refreeze in the lower ice shelf suspended a set of instruments about 6 feet (2 meters) below the ice-shelf base. The team also deployed at each site profiling instruments and a deep temperature and salinity instrument designed to repeatedly scan the deeper waters, although mechanical and hydraulic problems greatly limited data yield from the profilers.

Researchers use the data from these two instrument packages under the ice shelf to measure the basal melt in two different ways. First, an upward-facing altimeter records the retreat of the ice from the instrument. Second, an ocean turbulence instrument measures very small fluctuations in temperature, salinity and vertical current right below the ice. Researchers then use these three parameters to study changes in the vertical transport in the water column due to melt, which in turn lets them calculate the local ice melt rate.

On the ice shelf, scientists left high-resolution radars at different sites for 24 hours, and measured how the sea-ice interface, or the point where water touches the ice shelf's underbelly, moved as the ice melted.

The radar and oceanographic measurements translated into very similar melt rates: 2.36 inches (6 centimeters) per day, or about 72 feet (22 meters) per year in the middle of the channels, and almost non-existent at their flanks. The authors calculate that melting at the grounding line possibly doubles that higher rate. This would agree with previous estimates of basal melt made by a team led by Eric Rignot, jointly of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and the University of California, Irvine. In 2002, Rignot's group used satellite radar data and calculated that the warm marine waters were melting Pine Island Glacier's ice shelf at around 144 feet (44 meters) per year at its grounding line.

For decades, Pine Island Glacier was considered too dangerous and remote to explore, despite its scientific interest. But a careful study of satellite imagery by Bindschadler identified an area where planes could land safely.

"The success of this project shows the strength of marrying satellite data with field data," Bindschadler said. "The satellite data told us where to go, helped guide us and it told us in broad brush strokes that this part of West Antarctica was changing a lot. But field work was the only way to get these measurements underneath the ice shelf; satellites couldn't do that for us."

"In my 35 years doing fairly large oceanographic projects, the Pine Island Glacier one tops it in terms of its complexity and challenge," Stanton said. "But it's clear that it's very important to understand how these massive ice shelves are influenced by changes in the ocean. These observations will provide the basis for improving global climate models."

Maria-José Viñas
NASA's Earth Science News Team

Maria-José Viñas | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.nasa.gov
http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/warm-ocean-rapidly-melting-antarctic-ice-shelf-from-below/#.UjNz0XfjPZU

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Global study of world's beaches shows threat to protected areas
19.07.2018 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

nachricht NSF-supported researchers to present new results on hurricanes and other extreme events
19.07.2018 | National Science Foundation

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Future electronic components to be printed like newspapers

A new manufacturing technique uses a process similar to newspaper printing to form smoother and more flexible metals for making ultrafast electronic devices.

The low-cost process, developed by Purdue University researchers, combines tools already used in industry for manufacturing metals on a large scale, but uses...

Im Focus: First evidence on the source of extragalactic particles

For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.

To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...

Im Focus: Magnetic vortices: Two independent magnetic skyrmion phases discovered in a single material

For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.

Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...

Im Focus: Breaking the bond: To take part or not?

Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.

A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...

Im Focus: New 2D Spectroscopy Methods

Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.

"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Leading experts in Diabetes, Metabolism and Biomedical Engineering discuss Precision Medicine

13.07.2018 | Event News

Conference on Laser Polishing – LaP: Fine Tuning for Surfaces

12.07.2018 | Event News

11th European Wood-based Panel Symposium 2018: Meeting point for the wood-based materials industry

03.07.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

A smart safe rechargeable zinc ion battery based on sol-gel transition electrolytes

20.07.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Reversing cause and effect is no trouble for quantum computers

20.07.2018 | Information Technology

Princeton-UPenn research team finds physics treasure hidden in a wallpaper pattern

20.07.2018 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>