Antarctica is melting more than scientists thought, and it's creating giant waterfalls

Antarctica Tabular Icebergs. Wolfgang Kaehle—LightRocket via Getty Images

Antarctic melt-water lakes are far more common than once thought and could destabilise glaciers, potentially lifting sea levels by metres as global warming sets in, scientists said Wednesday. During the summer, which corresponds to the Northern latitude winter, an extensive network of some 700 rivers, channels, and streams pop up.

All that makes meltwater a little worrisome for climate scientists, but there may be a silver lining, at least according to one of the published papers.

"This is not in the future-this is widespread now and has been for decades", said Jonathan Kingslake, a glaciologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and lead author of the study, in a press release.

Dr Jeremy Ely, from Sheffield University's geography department, said: "If melted completely, Antarctica's ice sheets contain enough water to raise global sea levels by around 58 metres".

Iceberg shaped by melting, Drake Passage, Palmer Peninsula, Antarctica. The ice shelves will "still become more unstable as the climate warms", Dr. Banwell says, but they might not break up as rapidly as otherwise thought.

The first continent-wide survey of meltwater on Antarctica found alarming high numbers of pools, ponds, channels, rivers, and streams flowing across all sides of the continent.

The survey also showed that numerous meltwater streams and channels begin near mountains poking through glaciers or in areas with little or no snow, exposing the underlying bluish ice.

No comprehensive view of Antarctica's surface melt features existed.

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Images and photographs of the surface water were taken from military aircraft from the year 1947 and satellite imagery from 1973. But no one had ever done a systematic survey of Antarctica's meltwater systems.

What they found surprised everyone. Because the temperature keeps on fluctuating many newly observed streams have already made their way from the interior out onto ice shelves, or have originated on the shelves themselves. As the ice melts, liquid water will create a path downhill through overlying snow. "Meltwater is still a bad thing", she says, but it's "not always going to be a death to ice shelves". The Scott team noted that the "noise of running water from a lot of streams sounded odd after the usual Antarctic silence", and fell into several of the ponds and streams.

But the main damage to ice shelves comes from ocean water eroding their underbellies. Water is heavy, and the weight can cause the ice below these lakes to crack.

It's not clear yet from the data whether the meltwater rivers have been growing. "This process might have been responsible for the large-scale break-up of Antarctica's Larsen B Ice Shelf in 2002, when more than 2000 lakes drained in just a few days". As NASA geophycisist Ala Khazendar told NPR in January, "Ice shelves are very important".

Numerous newly mapped channels start in mountains that poke between glaciers, or in areas where winds have whipped the snow covering off bluish ice. Banwell, who wrote a Nature commentary on the two papers, was not involved with the research. In other regions, the meltwater surfaces around rocky mountain outcroppings which peak out of the ice. He said it was "a stretch", though to say that surface rivers like that on the Nansen shelf would protect the ice.

The movement "changes the way we think about the impact of meltwater", Dr. Bell says. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

The Weather Company's primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives.

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