New warnings as Antarctic glaciers become increasingly unstable

Scientists have issued a warning after finding that that apparently stable glaciers in the Antarctic can rapidly deteriorate and cascade huge amounts of ice into the ocean.

They can “switch very rapidly” and lose massive quantities of ice as a result of warmer oceans.

The warning  comes after a research team led by Benjamin Wallis, a glaciologist at the University of Leeds, used satellites to track the Cadman Glacier, which drains into Beascochea Bay, on the west Antarctic peninsula.

Between November 2018 and May 2021, the glacier retreated eight kilometres as the ice shelf at the end of the glacier, where ice extends out into the sea and is anchored onto the sea floor at what is known as the grounding zone, collapsed.

The team said the concern is that the ice shelf should function as a buttress, slowing the movement of the glacier towards the sea.   Surrounded by warmer ocean waters, the scientists believe the ice shelf thinned and became ungrounded, and the ice shelf was no longer able to hold back the glacier.

As a result, the speed at which the glacier was flowing rapidly accelerated doubling its speed increasing the amount of ice it discharges into the sea as icebergs, through a process known as iceberg calving.

Wallis said: “We were surprised to see the speed at which Cadman went from being an apparently stable glacier to one where we see sudden deterioration and significant ice loss.

“What was also curious was that the neighbouring glaciers on this part of the west Antarctic Peninsula did not react in the same way, which may hold important lessons for the way we can better project how climate change will continue to affect this important and sensitive polar region.

“Our study brought together data from three decades, nine different satellite missions, and in-situ oceanographic measurements to understand the changes happening in Antarctica. This demonstrates how important it is to have long term monitoring of the Earth’s polar regions with a range of sensors which all tell us a different piece of the story.”

According to the team, the Cadman Glacier is now in a state of “substantial dynamic imbalance”. The ice on the glacier has continued to thin, with elevation being lost at a rate of around 20 metres a year. That is equivalent to a loss in height of a five-storey building each year.  And it signals around 2.16 billion tonnes of ice are draining from the Cadman Glacier into the ocean each year.

The team believe  that the unusually high ocean water temperatures in early 2018/19 around the west Antarctic peninsula are believed to have triggered the rapid dynamic change on the Cadman Glacier system.

By analysing historic satellite data, the scientists believe warmer ocean waters gradually thinned the glacier’s ice shelf from the early 2000s and possibly since the 1970s.

Professor Michael Meredith, from the British Antarctic Survey and one of the authors of the paper, said: “We have known for some time that the ocean around Antarctica is heating up rapidly, and that this poses a significant threat to glaciers and the ice sheet, with consequences for sea level rise globally.

“What this new research shows is that apparently stable glaciers can switch very rapidly, becoming unstable almost without warning, and then thinning and retreating very strongly. This emphasises the need for a comprehensive ocean observing network around Antarctica, especially in regions close to glaciers that are especially hard to make measurements.”

Writing in the paper, the researchers say what has happened to the Cadman Glacier can be seen as an example of a “glaciological tipping point”, where a system in a steady state can take one or two paths based on a change in an environmental parameter.

They added a tipping point was reached in 2018 caused by the arrival of unusually warm ocean water, which caused the ice shelf to unground. Reaching this tipping point caused the Cadman Glacier to increase its ice discharge by 28% in 13 months.

According to the team, the Cadman Glacier is now in a state of “substantial dynamic imbalance”. The ice on the glacier has continued to thin, with elevation being lost at a rate of around 20 metres a year. That is equivalent to a loss in height of a five-storey building each year.

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