New research shows that Antarctica’s largest floating ice shelf is highly sensitive to warming of the ocean

Since the last ice age, the ice sheet retreated over a thousand kilometres in the Ross Sea region, more than any other region on the continent.
Rich Jones, CC BY-ND

Dan Lowry, Victoria University of Wellington

Scientists have long been concerned about the potential collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and its contribution to global sea level rise. Much of West Antarctica’s ice lies below sea level, and warming ocean temperatures may lead to runaway ice sheet retreat.

This process, called marine ice sheet instability, has already been observed along parts of the Amundsen Sea region, where warming of the ocean has led to melting underneath the floating ice shelves that fringe the continent. As these ice shelves thin, the ice grounded on land flows more rapidly into the ocean and raises the sea level.

Although the Amundsen Sea region has shown the most rapid changes to date, more ice actually drains from West Antarctica via the Ross Ice Shelf than any other area. How this ice sheet responds to climate change in the Ross Sea region is therefore a key factor in Antarctica’s contribution to global sea level rise in the future.

Periods of past ice sheet retreat can give us insights into how sensitive the Ross Sea region is to changes in ocean and air temperatures. Our research, published today, argues that ocean warming was a key driver of glacial retreat since the last ice age in the Ross Sea. This suggests that the Ross Ice Shelf is highly sensitive to changes in the ocean.

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History of the Ross Sea

Since the last ice age, the ice sheet retreated more than 1,000km in the Ross Sea region – more than any other region on the continent. But there is little consensus among the scientific community about how much climate and the ocean have contributed to this retreat.

Much of what we know about the past ice sheet retreat in the Ross Sea comes from rock samples found in the Transantarctic Mountains. Dating techniques allow scientists to determine when these rocks were exposed to the surface as the ice around them retreated. These rock samples, which were collected far from where the initial ice retreat took place, have generally led to interpretations in which the ice sheet retreat happened much later than, and independently of, the rise in air and ocean temperatures following the last ice age.

But radiocarbon ages from sediments in the Ross Sea suggest an earlier retreat, more in line with when climate began to warm from the last ice age.

An iceberg floating in the Ross Sea – an area that is sensitive to warming in the ocean.
Rich Jones, CC BY-ND

Using models to understand the past

To investigate how sensitive this region was to past changes, we developed a regional model of the Antarctic ice sheet. The model works by simulating the physics of the ice sheet and its response to changes in ocean and air temperatures. The simulations are then compared to geological records to check accuracy.

Our main findings are that warming of the ocean and atmosphere were the main causes of the major glacial retreat that took place in the Ross Sea region since the last ice age. But the dominance of these two controls in influencing the ice sheet evolved through time. Although air temperatures influenced the timing of the initial ice sheet retreat, ocean warming became the main driver due to melting of the Ross Ice Shelf from below, similar to what is currently observed in the Amundsen Sea.

The model also identifies key areas of uncertainty of past ice sheet behaviour. Obtaining sediment and rock samples and oceanographic data would help to improve modelling capabilities. The Siple Coast region of the Ross Ice Shelf is especially sensitive to changes in melt rates at the base of the ice shelf, and is therefore a critical region to sample.

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Climate scientists explore hidden ocean beneath Antarctica’s largest ice shelf

Implications for the future

Understanding processes that were important in the past allows us to improve and validate our model, which in turn gives us confidence in our future projections. Through its history, the ice sheet in the Ross Sea has been sensitive to changes in ocean and air temperatures. Currently, ocean warming underneath the Ross Ice Shelf is the main concern, given its potential to cause melting from below.

Challenges remain in determining exactly how ocean temperatures will change underneath the Ross Ice Shelf in the coming decades. This will depend on changes to patterns of ocean circulation, with complex interactions and feedback between sea ice, surface winds and melt water from the ice sheet.

Given the sensitivity of ice shelves to ocean warming, we need an integrated modelling approach that can accurately reproduce both the ocean circulation and dynamics of the ice sheet. But the computational cost is high.

Ultimately, these integrated projections of the Southern Ocean and Antarctic ice sheet will help policymakers and communities to develop meaningful adaptation strategies for cities and coastal infrastructure exposed to the risk of rising seas.The Conversation

Dan Lowry, PhD candidate, Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Arctic ice loss is worrying, but the giant stirring in the South could be even worse

Field camp on the East Antarctic ice sheet.
Nerilie Abram

Nerilie Abram, Australian National University; Matthew England, UNSW, and Matt King, University of Tasmania

A record start to summer ice melt in Greenland this year has drawn attention to the northern ice sheet. We will have to wait to see if 2019 continues to break ice-melt records, but in the rapidly warming Arctic the long-term trends of ice loss are clear.

But what about at the other icy end of the planet?

Antarctica is an icy giant compared to its northern counterpart. The water frozen in the Greenland ice sheet is equivalent to around 7 metres of potential sea level rise. In the Antarctic ice sheet there are around 58 metres of sea-level rise currently locked away.

Like Greenland, the Antarctic ice sheet is losing ice and contributing to unabated global sea level rise. But there are worrying signs Antarctica is changing faster than expected and in places previously thought to be protected from rapid change.

The threat from beneath

On the Antarctic Peninsula – the most northerly part of the Antarctic continent – air temperatures over the past century have risen faster than any other place in the Southern Hemisphere. Summer melting already happens on the Antarctic Peninsula between 25 and 80 days each year. The number of melt days will rise by at least 50% when global warming hits the soon-to-be-reached 1.5℃ limit set out in the Paris Agreement, with some predictions pointing to as much as a 150% increase in melt days.

But the main threat to the Antarctic ice sheet doesn’t come from above. What threatens to truly transform this vast icy continent lies beneath, where warming ocean waters (and the vast heat carrying capacity of seawater) have the potential to melt ice at an unprecedented rate.

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Almost all (around 93%) of the extra heat human activities have caused to accumulate on Earth since the Industrial Revolution lies within the ocean. And a large majority of this has been taken into the depths of the Southern Ocean. It is thought that this effect could delay the start of significant warming over much of Antarctica for a century or more.

However, the Antarctic ice sheet has a weak underbelly. In some places the ice sheet sits on ground that is below sea level. This puts the ice sheet in direct contact with warm ocean waters that are very effective at melting ice and destabilising the ice sheet.

Scientists have long been worried about the potential weakness of ice in West Antarctica because of its deep interface with the ocean. This concern was flagged in the first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) way back in 1990, although it was also thought that substantial ice loss from Antarctica wouldn’t be seen this century. Since 1992 satellites have been monitoring the status of the Antarctic ice sheet and we now know that not only is ice loss already underway, it is also vanishing at an accelerating rate.

The latest estimates indicate that 25% of the West Antarctic ice sheet is now unstable, and that Antarctic ice loss has increased five-fold over the past 25 years. These are remarkable numbers, bearing in mind that more than 4 metres of global sea-level rise are locked up in the West Antarctic alone.

Antarctic ice loss 1992–2019, European Space Agency.

Read more:
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Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica is currently the focus of a major US-UK research program as there is still a lot we don’t understand about how quickly ice will be lost here in the future. For example, gradual lifting of the bedrock as it responds to the lighter weight of ice (known as rebounding) could reduce contact between the ice sheet and warm ocean water and help to stabilise runaway ice loss.

On the other hand, melt water from the ice sheets is changing the structure and circulation of the Southern Ocean in a way that could bring even warmer water into contact with the base of the ice sheet, further amplifying ice loss.

There are other parts of the Antarctic ice sheet that haven’t had this same intensive research, but which appear to now be stirring. The Totten Glacier, close to Australia’s Casey station, is one area unexpectedly losing ice. There is a very pressing need to understand the vulnerabilities here and in other remote parts of the East Antarctic coast.

The other type of ice

Sea ice forms and floats on the surface of the polar oceans. The decline of Arctic sea ice over the past 40 years is one of the most visible climate change impacts on Earth. But recent years have shown us that the behaviour of Antarctic sea ice is stranger and potentially more volatile.

The extent of sea ice around Antarctica has been gradually increasing for decades. This is contrary to expectations from climate simulations, and has been attributed to changes in the ocean structure and changing winds circling the Antarctic continent.

But in 2015, the amount of sea ice around Antarctica began to drop precipitously. In just 3 years Antarctica lost the same amount of sea ice the Arctic lost in 30.

Read more:
Why Antarctica’s sea ice cover is so low (and no, it’s not just about climate change)

So far in 2019, sea ice around Antarctica is tracking near or below the lowest levels on record from 40 years of satellite monitoring. In the long-term this trend is expected to continue, but such a dramatic drop over only a few years was not anticipated.

There is still a lot to learn about how quickly Antarctica will respond to climate change. But there are very clear signs that the icy giant is awakening and – via global sea level rise – coming to pay us all a visit.The Conversation

Nerilie Abram, ARC Future Fellow, Research School of Earth Sciences; Chief Investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Australian National University; Matthew England, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; Deputy Director of the Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC); Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Climate System Science, UNSW, and Matt King, Professor, Surveying & Spatial Sciences, School of Technology, Environments and Design, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How solar heat drives rapid melting of parts of Antarctica’s largest ice shelf

Scientists measured the thickness and basal melt of the Ross Ice Shelf.
Supplied, CC BY-ND

Craig Stewart, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research

The ocean that surrounds Antarctica plays a crucial role in regulating the mass balance of the continent’s ice cover. We now know that the thinning of ice that affects nearly a quarter of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is clearly linked to the ocean.

The connection between the Southern Ocean and Antarctica’s ice sheet lies in ice shelves – massive slabs of glacial ice, many hundreds of metres thick, that float on the ocean. Ice shelves grind against coastlines and islands and buttress the outflow of grounded ice. When the ocean erodes ice shelves from below, this buttressing action is reduced.

While some ice shelves are thinning rapidly, others remain stable, and the key to understanding these differences lies within the hidden oceans beneath ice shelves. Our recently published research explores the ocean processes that drive melting of the world’s largest ice shelf. It shows that a frequently overlooked process is driving rapid melting of a key part of the shelf.

Read more:
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Ocean fingerprints on ice sheet melt

Rapid ice loss from Antarctica is frequently linked to Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW). This relatively warm (+1C) and salty water mass, which is found at depths below 300 metres around Antarctica, can drive rapid melting. For example, in the south-east Pacific, along West Antarctica’s Amundsen Sea coast, CDW crosses the continental shelf in deep channels and enters ice shelf cavities, driving rapid melting and thinning.

Interestingly, not all ice shelves are melting quickly. The largest ice shelves, including the vast Ross and Filchner-Ronne ice shelves, appear close to equilibrium. They are largely isolated from CDW by the cold waters that surround them.

The satellite image shows that strong offshore winds drive sea ice away from the north-western Ross Ice Shelf, exposing the dark ocean surface. Solar heating warms the water enough to drive melting. Figure modified from
Supplied, CC BY-ND

The contrasting effects of CDW and cold shelf waters, combined with their distribution, explain much of the variability in the melting we observe around Antarctica today. But despite ongoing efforts to probe the ice shelf cavities, these hidden seas remain among the least explored parts of Earth’s oceans.

Read more:
Climate scientists explore hidden ocean beneath Antarctica’s largest ice shelf

It is within this context that our research explores a new and hard-won dataset of oceanographic observations and melt rates from the world’s largest ice shelf.

Beneath the Ross Ice Shelf

In 2011, we used a 260 metre deep borehole that had been melted through the north-western corner of the Ross Ice Shelf, seven kilometres from the open ocean, to deploy instruments that monitor ocean conditions and melt rates beneath the ice. The instruments remained in place for four years.

The observations showed that far from being a quiet back water, conditions beneath the ice shelf are constantly changing. Water temperature, salinity and currents follow a strong seasonal cycle, which suggests that warm surface water from north of the ice front is drawn southward into the cavity during summer.

Melt rates at the mooring site average 1.8 metres per year. While this rate is much lower than ice shelves impacted by warm CDW, it is ten times higher than the average rate for the Ross Ice Shelf. Strong seasonal variability in the melt rate suggests that this melting hotspot is linked to the summer inflow.

Summer sea surface temperature surrounding Antarctica (a) and in the Ross Sea (b) showing the strong seasonal warming within the Ross Sea polynya. Figure modified from
Supplied, CC BY-ND

To assess the scale of this effect, we used a high-precision radar to map basal melt rates across a region of about 8,000 square kilometres around the mooring site. Careful observations at around 80 sites allowed us to measure the vertical movement of the ice base and internal layers within the ice shelf over a one-year interval. We could then determine how much of the thinning was caused by basal melting.

Melting was fastest near the ice front where we observed short-term melt rates of up to 15 centimetres per day – several orders of magnitude higher than the ice shelf average rate. Melt rates reduced with distance from the ice front, but rapid melting extended far beyond the mooring site. Melting from the survey region accounted for some 20% of the total from the entire ice shelf.

The bigger picture

Why is this region of the shelf melting so much more quickly than elsewhere? As is so often the case in the ocean, it appears that winds play a key role.

During winter and spring, strong katabatic winds sweep across the western Ross Ice Shelf and drive sea ice from the coast. This leads to the formation of an area that is free of sea ice, a polynya, where the ocean is exposed to the atmosphere. During winter, this area of open ocean cools rapidly and sea ice grows. But during spring and summer, the dark ocean surface absorbs heat from the sun and warms, forming a warm surface pool with enough heat to drive the observed melting.

Although the melt rates we observe are far lower than those seen on ice shelves influenced by CDW, the observations suggest that for the Ross Ice Shelf, surface heat is important.

Given this heat is closely linked to surface climate, it is likely that the predicted reductions in sea ice within the coming century will increase basal melt rates. While the rapid melting we observed is currently balanced by ice inflow, glacier models show that this is a structurally critical region where the ice shelf is pinned against Ross Island. Any increase in melt rates could reduce buttressing from Ross Island, increasing the discharge of land-based ice, and ultimately add to sea levels.

While there is still much to learn about these processes, and further surprises are certain, one thing is clear. The ocean plays a key role in the dynamics of Antarctica’s ice sheet and to understand the stability of the ice sheet we must look to the ocean.The Conversation

Craig Stewart, Marine Physicist, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Curious Kids: how can penguins stay warm in the freezing cold waters of Antarctica?

Emperor penguins have uniquely adapted to their Antarctic home.
Christopher Michel/flickr, CC BY-SA

Jane Younger, University of Bath

Curious Kids is a series for children. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to You might also like the podcast Imagine This, a co-production between ABC KIDS listen and The Conversation, based on Curious Kids.

How can penguins and polar bears stay warm in the freezing cold waters of Antarctica? – Riley, age 8, Clarksville, Tennessee USA.

Thanks for your question, Riley. The first thing I should probably say is that while a lot of people think polar bears and penguins live together, in fact they live at opposite ends of the Earth. Polar bears live in the northern hemisphere and penguins live in the southern hemisphere.

I’m a penguin researcher so I’m going to explain here how penguins can stay warm in Antarctica.

There are four species of penguins that live in Antarctica: emperors, gentoos, chinstraps, and Adélies.

All these penguins have special adaptations to keep them warm, but emperor penguins might be the most extreme birds in the world. These amazing animals dive up to 500 metres
below the surface of the ocean to catch their prey, withstanding crushing pressures and water temperatures as low as -1.8℃.

But their most incredible feat takes place not in the ocean, but on the sea ice above it.

Surviving on the ice

Emperor penguin chicks must hatch in spring so they can be ready to go to sea during the warmest time of year. For this timing to work, emperors gather in large groups on sea ice to begin their breeding in April, lay their eggs in May, and then the males protect the eggs for four months throughout the harsh Antarctic winter.

It’s dark, windy, and cold. Air temperatures regularly fall below -30℃, and occasionally drop to -60℃ during blizzards. These temperatures could easily kill a human in minutes. But emperor penguins endure it, to give their chicks the best start in life.

Emperor penguins have special physical and behavioural adaptations to survive temperatures that could easily kill a human in minutes.
Flickr/Ian Duffy, CC BY

A body ‘too big’ for its head

Emperor penguins have four layers of overlapping feathers that provide excellent protection from wind, and thick layers of fat that trap heat inside the body.

Emperor penguins have a small beak, small flippers, and small legs and feet. This way, less heat can be lost from places furthest from their main body.
Anne Fröhlich/flickr, CC BY-ND

Have you ever noticed that an emperor penguin’s body looks too big for its head and feet? This is another adaptation to keep them warm.

The first place that you feel cold is your hands and feet, because these parts are furthest from your main body and so lose heat easily.

This is the same for penguins, so they have evolved a small beak, small flippers, and small legs and feet, so that less heat can be lost from these areas.

They also have specially arranged veins and arteries in these body parts, which helps recycle their body warmth. For example, in their nasal passages (inside their noses), blood vessels are arranged so they can regain most of the heat that would be lost by breathing.

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Huddle time

Male emperor penguins gather close together in big groups called “huddles” to minimise how much of their body surface is exposed to cold air while they are incubating eggs.

This can cut heat loss in half and keep penguins’ core temperature at about 37℃ even while the air outside the huddle is below -30℃.

The biggest huddles ever observed had about 5,000 penguins! Penguins take turns to be on the outer edge of the huddle, protecting those on the inside from the wind.

Incredibly, during this four-month period of egg incubation the male penguins don’t eat anything and must rely on their existing fat stores. This long fast would be impossible unless they worked together.

The biggest huddles ever observed had about 5,000 penguins!
Flickr/Ars Electronica, CC BY

Changing habitats

Emperor penguins are uniquely adapted to their Antarctic home. As temperatures rise and sea ice disappears, emperors will face new challenges. If it becomes too warm they will get heat-stressed, and if the sea ice vanishes they will have nowhere to breed. Sadly, these incredible animals may face extinction in the future. The best thing we can do for emperor penguins is to take action on climate change now.

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Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to Please tell us your name, age and which city you live in. We won’t be able to answer every question but we will do our best.The Conversation

Jane Younger, Research Fellow, University of Bath

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.