Antarctic ice sliding along bedrock to melt in warming sea

Scientists trying to map the melting of ice in Antarctica have come up with a discovery. Much of the ice flowing into the ocean is not the result of “deformation” of glaciers. Rather, the ice is sliding along bedrock.

“That’s critical knowledge for predicting future sea level rise,” said Thomas Wagner, a NASA cryospheric program scientist in a press release. “It means that if we lose ice at the coasts from the warming ocean, we open the tap to massive amounts of ice in the interior.”

Photo: NASA, JPL-Caltech, and UCI

The study, published last week in the online journal Science, involved the first complete map of Antarctic ice sheet flow. Although parts of Antarctica have been well document aerially, the vast extent of East Antarctica, which comprises more than three-quarters of the continent, has been devoid of quality data.

Using 900 satellite tracks and more than 3,000 orbits of radar data, scientists at the University of California Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena constructed a mosaic of ice flow across the lonely continent. The high flow spots appear like fingers reaching into the center of the continent. For a video animation of the flow, check here.

The scientists show that ice flow is not happening at the same rate everywhere, due to obvious factors like surface contours and snow accumulation. The detail will allow scientists to better understand the way Antarctic ice is succumbing to the pressures of climate change. It also will help scientists studying ice sheet flow dynamics elsewhere, the scientists claim.