Antarctic Meltwater Isn't the Crisis We Thought It Was

New Discovery in Antarctica Suggests Ice Sheets Could Disappear Way Faster Than Previously Thought

"Most polar scientists have considered water moving across the surface of Antarctica to be extremely rare - but we found a lot of it over very large areas", he said in a statement.

Because meltwater streams were thought to be relatively rare in Antarctica before this, they haven't been extensively studied in the past, according to glaciologist Douglas MacAyeal from the University of Chicago, who wasn't involved in the study. Because the ice exposed in these areas are darker than those in snow-covered areas, it absorbs more solar energy and is more prone to melting. During the summer, which corresponds to the Northern latitude winter, an extensive network of some 700 rivers, channels, and streams pop up.

The Antarctic Ice Sheet is draining huge quantities of water out to sea. The National Snow and Ice Center estimates that if the Antarctic Ice Shelf-which covers 98 percent of the continent-melted, sea levels would rise by as much as 200 feet.

The research, by a team from The Earth Institute at Columbia University, carries on the work of measuring the Antarctica melt streams that began in the early 20th century. "Meltwater is still a bad thing", she says, but it's "not always going to be a death to ice shelves". Some of the photos taken by military aircraft are as old as 70 years while the satellite imagery was assessed from 1973 onward. "Export of meltwater by surface rivers may buffer the impact of warming temperatures", the researchers wrote.

Nothing is clear-cut yet though, and researchers spotted another meltwater stream channel on the Nansen ice shelf that they think might be helping to keep it together, by efficiently removing water from the shelf out to the ocean. The liquid water flows down through the slope covering the underlying snow.

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The researchers noted that the increasing temperature in the Antarctic area could greatly affect the meltwater systems. "Ice is dynamic and complex, and we don't have the data yet".

But the main damage to ice shelves comes from ocean water eroding their underbellies.

Newly recorded drainages usually start near mountains finding their way down through glaciers. Decades of satellite imagery and aerial photography have revealed an extensive network of lakes and rivers transporting liquid meltwater across the continent's ice shelves - almost 700 systems of connected pools and streams in total. A better understanding of how, when and where the meltwater forms could help scientists better model how different ice shelves will respond to rising temperatures, which are expected to increase surface melt.

Regardless of what they find, Bell and Kingslake are excited to delve further into the meltwater systems, which Bell says show that "there's still so much beauty to be discovered on our planet".

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