Antarctica’s great ice sheet is losing ground as it is eroded by warm ocean water circulating beneath its floating edge, a new study has found.
Research by the UK Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) at the University of Leeds has produced the first complete map of how the ice sheets submarine edge, or "grounding line", is shifting.
Most Antarctic glaciers flow straight into the ocean in deep submarine troughs the grounding line is the place where their base leaves the sea floor and begins to float.
A study, published today in Nature Geoscience, shows that the Southern Ocean melted 1,463 km2 of Antarcticas underwater ice between 2010 and 2016 an area the size of Greater London.
The team, led by Dr Hannes Konrad from the University of Leeds, found that grounding line retreat has been extreme at eight of the ice sheets 65 biggest glaciers. The pace of deglaciation since the last ice age is roughly 25 metres per year. The retreat of the grounding line at these glaciers is more than five times that rate.
The biggest changes were seen in West Antarctica, where more than a fifth of the ice sheet has retreated across the sea floor faster than the pace of deglaciation.
This retreat has had a huge impact on inland glaciers, because releasing them from the sea bed removes friction, causing them to speed up and contribute to global sea level rise
Dr Konrad said: Our study provides clear evidence that retreat is happening across the ice sheet due to ocean melting at its base, and not just at the few spots that have been mapped before now. This retreat has had a huge impact on inland glaciers, because releasing them from the sea bed removes friction, causing them to speed up and contribute to global sea level rise.
The researchers also found some unexpected behaviour. Although retreat of the Thwaites Glacier grounding line in West Antarctica has sped up, at the neighbouring Pine Island Glacier until recently one of the fastest retreating on the continent it has halted. This suggests that the ocean melting at its base may have paused.
Dr Konrad added: These differences emphasise the complex nature of ice sheet instability across the continent, and being able to detect them helps us to pinpoint areas that deserve further investigation.
Grounding lines typically lie a kilometre or more below sea level and are inaccessible even to submersibles, so remote sensing methods for detecting them are extremely valuable.
The team were able to track the movement of Antarcticas grounding line using European Space Agencys CryoSat-2 across 16,000km of the coastline. Although CryoSat-2 is designed to measure changes in the ice sheet elevation, these can be translated into horizontal motion at the grounding line using knowledge of the glacier and sea floor geometry and the Archimedes principle of buoyancy which relates the thickness of floating ice to the height of its surface.
Study co-author Professor Andy Shepherd, from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, said: We were delighted at how well CryoSat-2 is able to detect the motion of Antarcticas grounding lines. They are impossible places to access from below, and usually invisible on the ground, so its a fantastic illustration of the value of satellite measurements for identifying and understanding environmental change.
The paper Net retreat of Antarctic glacier grounding lines by Hannes Konrad, Andrew Shepherd, Lin Gilbert, Anna Hogg, Malcolm McMillan, Alan Muir and Thomas Slater is published on 2 April in Nature Geoscience
Dr Konrad and Professor Shepherd are available for comment. Dr Konrad is now based at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany. Professor Shepherd is CPOM Director and Principal Scientific Advisor to ESAs CryoSat-2 mission.
Contact University of Leeds Media Relations Officer Anna Harrison for further information via firstname.lastname@example.org or or +44(0)113 343 4196 for any additional information.