Story at a glance

  • Researchers say the Denman glacier could cause sea levels worldwide to rise nearly 5 feet if fully thawed.
  • Scientists say because of the shape of the ground under Denman’s western side, there’s potential for rapid and irreversible retreat.
  • The Dennan glacier has experienced a loss of 268 billion tons of ice from 1979 to 2017.

Scientists say a glacier on the icy continent of Antarctica that contains enough water to eventually raise global sea levels by 5 feet has been melting rapidly in the last two decades. 

A new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found East Antarctica’s Denman Glacier has retreated nearly 3 miles in just the past 22 years. 

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are concerned the shape of the ground surface beneath the ice sheet could make it more susceptible to climate-driven collapse. If fully thawed, the ice in Denman would cause sea levels worldwide to rise nearly 5 feet. 

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“East Antarctica has long been thought to be less threatened, but as glaciers such as Denman have come under closer scrutiny by the cryosphere science community, we are now beginning to see evidence of potential marine ice sheet instability in this region,” Eric Rignot, the study’s co-author and scientist at the University of California-Irvine said in a statement

“The ice in West Antarctica has been melting faster in recent years, but the sheer size of Denman Glacier means that its potential impact on long-term sea level rise is just as significant,” Rignot said. 

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The Denman glacier has seen a loss of 268 billion tons of ice from 1979 to 2017, according to the study. Researchers used radar data from a satellite to measure the ice loss. 

The study’s lead author, Virginia Brancato of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said because of the shape of the ground beneath Denman’s western side, there is potential for rapid and irreversible retreat, meaning substantial increases in global sea levels in the future. 

So far, attention has been mostly set on the West Antarctic ice sheet, where several glaciers, including the Thwaites glacier, have been losing ice rapidly due to warming ocean water. Scientists in January discovered water below the glacier was more than 2 degrees above normal freezing temperature. 

In February, thermometers at the Esperanza Base on the northern tip of the Antarctica Peninsula marked a temperature of 64.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Published on Mar 24, 2020