The Hot Zone

Antarctic ice sheet may be more durable than thought

Posted by Alison Hawkes on March 7, 2011
Category : Climates of the Past

The stability of Antarctic ice has long concerned climate scientists. If the west Antarctic ice sheet’s base were to collapse, global sea levels could shoot up by five meters.

But new research shows the ice could be a bit more tough than scientists thought. In a study published online last month in the geo-science journal Palaeogeograpy, Palaeoclimtology, Palaeoecology, University of Exeter-led geographer Christopher Fogwill and colleagues found that blue-ice moraines in West Antarctica fluctuated in thickness during the ups and downs of the Earth’s glacial cycles. But for at least the past 200,000 years, and maybe as long as 400,000 years, they remained intact, even during warm, interglacial periods.

Moraines are a pile of rocks, often covered in ice in glaciated areas, that have been amassed by moving glaciers. The scientists analyzed the moraines in the Heritage mountain range near the central dome of the west Antarctic ice sheet for beryllium isotopes produce by cosmic radiation. When the rock is exposed, meaning it’s absent of ice, the isotopes accumulate. Fogwill and his team found that the moraines have been covered in ice for at least 200,000 years.

Presumably, these areas might outlast this latest bout of climate change. At the very least, the findings could change scientists’ understanding of how sensitive the ice sheet is to a warming world.

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