Totten glacier, the largest in East Antarctica, is being melted from below by warm water that reaches the ice.
Up until now it wasn’t entirely clear what was pushing this warm water towards the glacier however a research team at the University of Texas has made the worrying discovery that it is in fact intense winds that are to blame.
While in the past this wouldn’t be as much of a problem, climate change is expected to see the intensity of these winds increase significantly in the future.
That turns it into a very big problem because Totten just so happens to contain enough ice to raise the global sea level by a staggering 11 feet. It’s also considered the plug that locks in the ice of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.
“Totten has been called the sleeping giant because it’s huge and has been seen as insensitive to changes in its environment,” said lead author Chad Greene, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG).
“But we’ve shown that if Totten is asleep, it’s certainly not in a coma ― we’re seeing signs of responsiveness, and it might just take the wind blowing to wake it up.”
The team discovered that the glacier speeds up its flow towards the sea when winds over Antarctica’s southern ocean are particularly strong.
What happens is that the wind pulls warm water up from the deep ocean and onto the continental shelf in a process that’s called upwelling.
Once the warm water reaches the coast it then starts to circulate under the floating ice portion of the glacier and in turn cause it to melt into the sea.
“It’s like when you blow across a hot bowl of soup and little bits of noodles from the bottom begin to swirl around and rise to the top,” said Greene.
The reason Totten is a cause for such concern is because of the fact that much of the ice that would be melting would be land-locked, so ice that traditionally would never have entered the ocean. Of course climate change is changing that.
“Ice sheet sensitivity to wind forcing has been hypothesised for a long time, but it takes decades of observation to show unequivocal cause and effect,” said Donald Blankenship, a senior researcher at UTIG who contributed to this study and Roberts’ study.
“Now we’re at the point where we can explicitly show the links between what happens in the atmosphere, what happens in the ocean, and what happens to the Antarctic Ice Sheet.”