Wednesday, July 23, 2014

More Trouble For Antarctic Ice

I saw an article in Physics Today about the Antarctic ice sheets. It is pretty technical, but really explains the dynamics of ice sheets on land very well. They discuss how recent research indicates portions of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) has reached the point of no return. But, they also discuss how new research indicates portions of the ice sheet of East Antarctica is also at risk of collapsing. Here is a figure illustrating the two areas the article discusses:

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Source: Physics Today

What they found is a large 'plug' is holding back the ice in Wilkes Basin. This plug is huge (about a trillion tons of ice), but is small in comparison to the ice in the basin. In comparison, the plug would raise the world sea level by about 80 mm if it all melted. If the basin ice melted, it would raise world sea levels by about 3 m. If the plug melts or breaks apart, then there won't be anything to stop the Wilkes Basin from dumping its ice into the sea.

So, what are the chances of the plug melting? That is a big unknown. It could happen relatively quickly, or it could take hundreds of years. Right now, we don't know enough of what is underneath the ice and the dynamics of what is going on to say for sure.

Research continues, so stay tuned.

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