Story at a glance

  • A study found that two major glaciers are disintegrating, spelling trouble for sea levels.
  • If the glaciers disintegrate, more ice will drift into the ocean and cause sea levels to rise.

A new study reports devastating news for the Antarctic environment: Two of its glaciers, the Pine Island Glacier and Thwaites Glacier in the Amundsen Sea, are experiencing damage and could break apart, which could mean rising global sea levels.

Published in the scientific journal PNAS on Monday, the study chronicles the melting of both glaciers. Scientists used multisource satellite imagery with additional mathematical modeling to gauge some of the points of deterioration along both ice shelves. The damage is mainly composed of open fractures and highly crevassed areas. 

Satellite photographic evidence spanning from 1997 to 2019 suggests that these cracks have worsened over the past decades, which could inevitably lead to the collapse or disintegration of both shelves. 


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Both glaciers are already responsible for the largest contribution of ice into the sea, accounting for about 5 percent of the global sea level rise. The more ice loss from these glaciers, the more sea levels stand to rise. 

“Typically the ice shelf acts like slow traffic. It's floating on the ocean but it buttresses the ice traffic behind it,” lead author Stef Lhermitte told CNN. “So if you weaken this slow car, then the ice discharges more rapidly.”

 

 

Researchers write that both glaciers are experiencing such damage due to changing atmospheric and oceanic conditions. The damage observed at both the Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers shed light on future sea levels projections from the Antarctic.

“We knew they were sleeping giants and these were the ones losing a lot of miles (of ice), but how far and how much still remains a large uncertainty,” Lhermitte said. "These ice shelves are in the early phase of disintegration, they're starting to tear apart.”

Warmer sea and atmospheric temperatures are behind the thinning ice shelves, a byproduct of an increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere. 

The report concludes with the authors hypothesizing that the current damage indicates the glaciers are predisposed for future disintegration and holds crucial information for future studies on the future of Antarctica’s ice. 

“The results of this study suggest that damage feedback processes are key to future ice shelf stability, grounding line retreat, and sea level contributions from Antarctica,” the study explained. 


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Published on Sep 15, 2020