Scientists say world's largest ice shelf is melting 10 times faster than average

Scientists say world's largest ice shelf is melting 10 times faster than average
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A new study from international researchers reveals that part of the world's largest ice shelf is melting 10 times faster than expected.

Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf, which is roughly the size of France, is melting at historic levels as more of the surrounding ocean water gets heated by the sun, scientists said, according to a press release from the University of Cambridge.

"The stability of ice shelves is generally thought to be related to their exposure to warm deep ocean water, but we've found that solar heated surface water also plays a crucial role in melting ice shelves," Dr. Craig Stewart from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand, one of the authors of the study, said in the release. 

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The team of scientists used an oceanographic mooring that was installed underneath the ice shelf to collect data over the course of four years, the university said. The scientists were able to conduct measurements of “temperature, salinity, melt rates and ocean currents in the cavity under the ice” during that time.

Dr. Poul Christoffersen, who helped co-author the study, said that “previous studies have shown that when ice shelves collapse, the feeding glaciers can speed up by a factor or two or three.”

"The difference here is the sheer size of Ross Ice Shelf, which over one hundred times larger than the ice shelves we've already seen disappear,” he continued. 

The university said in the release that the findings from the study “suggest that conditions in the ice shelf cavity are more closely coupled with the surface ocean and atmosphere than previously assumed, implying that melt rates near the ice front will respond quickly to changes in the uppermost layer of the ocean.” 

"Climate change is likely to result in less sea ice, and higher surface ocean temperatures in the Ross Sea, suggesting that melt rates in this region will increase in the future," Stewart said.

The researchers found that the ice shelf "may be more vulnerable than thought so far," though the melting does not indicate that the shelf is currently at risk of collapsing, due to accumulation of ice and snow that balances out the losses. 

The report comes a week after researchers from the British Antarctic Survey released a study finding that the world’s second-largest colony of emperor penguins was wiped out after changes in sea-ice conditions made their breeding grounds highly unstable.