A new report has revealed that massive fractures in the ice shelves of West Antarctica are threatening to increase the rate at which they are melting. The study, which has looked at 40 years of satellite images of the West Antarctic ice shelves, states that the region has seen an increase in ice loss over the past few decades. Over the past 30 years, due to the region growing steadily warmer, the Antarctic Peninsula has been repeatedly named as one of the fastest warming spots on the planet.

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The facts and figures for the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet are staggering. First of all, the region is about the size of Greenland and contains about 10 percent of all the ice in Antarctica. If the area continues to melt and break off into the sea, the impact on global sea levels will be enormous.

Currently, the glaciers that make up the ice sheet slowly flow toward the sea. Once there, the ice floats atop the ocean, forming what is called an ice shelf. The glacial flow is resisted naturally by the bay’s rocky walls and seams where the glaciers merge. This creates a doorstop effect as the glaciers attach themselves to the rocky outcrops. However satellite images shows that in the eastern Amundsen Sea Embayment, the ice that normally grips onto the rocky walls is fracturing and retreating inland.

As the fracturing increases, new icebergs split off and drift out to sea. While this process is normal, it is occurring more rapidly due to the increasing frequency of cracks.

As an ice shelf’s grip continues to loosen, these already-thinning masses of ice will be even less able to perform their doorstop function of holding back the grounded ice upstream, potentially leading to even faster flow of these already speedy glaciers.

Ginny Catania of the University of Texas at Austin, and co-author of the study, said, “An accelerating glacier can tear away from its margins, creating rifts that negate the margins’ resistance to ice flow and causing additional acceleration.”

The team’s research is detailed online in the Journal of Glaciology where it would seem that if nothing is done to halt the warming, the ice shelves are poised to disappear faster than we ever anticipated.

+ Journal of Glaciology

Via Huffington Post

Images: NASA Goddard Photo and Video and euphro