New findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have revealed that two of the most important Antarctic glaciers are breaking away. The findings, which follow analyses of satellite imagery, indicate that a natural buffer that prevents the glaciers from breaking away is deteriorating at a rapid rate and could lead to destructive sea level rise.
The two Antarctic glaciers in question, Pine Island and Thwaites, are located along the coast of the Amundsen Sea in West Antarctica. For years, scientists have been carrying out studies to determine the best way to ensure that these two glaciers do not drift off into the ocean. Currently, the two glaciers already contribute to about 5% of global sea level rise. It is feared that if the glaciers drift, they could contribute up to a 10-foot sea level rise, which could lead to devastating losses of life and property. The survival of Pine Island and Thwaites is so critical that the U.S. and the U.K. have already invested millions into research concerning these glaciers.
Stef Lhermitte, one of the authors of the study and a satellite expert at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, said that the images are alarming.
“The stresses that slow down the glacier, they are no longer in place, so the glacier is speeding up,” Lhermitte said. “We already knew that these were glaciers that might matter in the future, but these images to me indicate that these ice shelves are in a very bad state.”
Ice shelves are very important in retaining seawater in the form of ice. As explained by The Washington Post, they are vast, floating ice sheets that extend across the ocean’s surface to the outer edge of glaciers. Although they freely flow over water, the ice shelves can attach themselves and freeze into the mountainsides. After freezing into mountainsides, they anchor into the seafloor. But warming oceans can cause the ice shelves to thin and glaciers to break away. As they drift off, the glaciers can melt and release more water into the oceans. If this happens, the resulting sea level rise could critically change the world as we know it.
Image via Kate Ramsayer / NASA