‘Upside-down rivers’ speed polar ice loss

polar ice

Aerial view of icebergs formed at the calving front of a West Antarctica ice shelf.
Image: Jefferson Beck/NASA/GSFC

Researchers move closer to understanding the invisible dynamics that drive the loss of polar ice shelves – but what it means for global warming is still uncertain.

LONDON, October 16, 2019 – Scientists in the US believe they have now identified the machinery that drives the break-up of great chunks of polar ice shelves. What they call “upside down rivers” of warm, less dense, less saline water, tens of miles long and miles wide, find weaknesses in the massive ice shelves.

And because global temperature rise is causing polar currents to get warmer, the effect could be to accelerate the collapse of great tracts of ice shelf, and allow glacial flow to speed up – resulting in rising sea levels.

Call it subversion: these unexpected channels of water rise from underneath to concentrate their effect on fracture zones that form as land-bound glaciers flow slowly onto the marine surface.

“Warm water circulation is attacking the undersides of these ice shelves at their weakest points,” says Earth scientist Karen Alley, who did her research at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but is now at the College of Wooster in Ohio, US. “These effects matter. Exactly how much, we don’t yet know. But we need to.”

Frozen sheets

The research could explain the persistent appearance, at roughly the same place every year, of polynyas. These are great pools of open sea water in the ice shelves, and scientists have been puzzling for decades about the mechanisms that make them possible.

About 80% of Antarctica is bounded by frozen sheets of sea ice, many of them anchored by bumps and chasms on the sea floor, and this is what slows the flow of ice from high ground to ocean.

But satellite studies have long exposed crevasses in this ice, formed at what scientists call “shear margins” – weak points in flowing ice.

Once part of the floating shelf, these fracture zones are more vulnerable to plumes of more buoyant – that is, less saline and warmer – water that flow as “basal channels” to create long wrinkles or sags in the shelf.

Dr Alley and her colleagues report in Science Advances journal that they pieced together this picture of polar dynamism far below the surface by combing satellite data to expose patterns of surface change made possible only by some consistent erosion by warmer current.

Climate – winds, rainfall, heat and drought patterns – is driven by the temperature gradient. Large-scale weather systems happen because the poles are cold and the tropics are hot, and this difference powers the stratospheric jet stream and the most profound ocean flow.

So climate scientists are intensely interested in change in both Greenland and the Antarctic.

“Now we’re seeing a new process, where warm water cuts into the ice shelf from below”

Other teams have already established that ice shelves are melting ever faster in the coldest places on the planet, that this melting is happening ever faster, that the ice is being attacked from below, and that this can only accelerate sea-level rise in a world subject to global heating driven by human use of fossil fuels that deposit huge volumes of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The latest study focused on Antarctica, but the findings could also be applied to Greenland, which has the greatest reserve of Arctic ice, and where ice loss is accelerating even faster.

Report co-author Ted Scambos, senior research scientist in the Earth Science and Observation Centre at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says: “Now we’re seeing a new process, where warm water cuts into the ice shelf from below.

“Like scoring a plate of glass, the trough renders the shelf weak and, in a few decades, it’s gone, freeing the ice sheet to ride out faster into the ocean.” – Climate News Network