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Meltwater Is Now Streaming Across Antarctica

21 April 2017

"I think most polar scientists have considered water moving across the surface of Antarctica to be extremely rare".

This meltwater usually refreezes in winter, and it's thought this process isn't contributing much to Antarctica's ice loss just yet.

Scientists have long understood that water from melted ice harm ice sheets by flowing into cracks and refreezing, but that phenomenon was thought to be limited to a small part of the continent. They found water in places where it was thought to be impossible. If the ice sheet melts, it will raise sea levels by tens of feet, flooding coastal cities around the globe.

Vast lakes and streams with the capacity to raise global sea levels by 58 metres are widespread on the surface of Antarctica, according to research published yesterday.

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Two new papers analyze satellite imagery of Antarctica dating back to 1973 and aerial photography dating back to 1947 for evidence of meltwater.

Another concern is the ice shelves that ring Antarctica and protect its glaciers from floating out to the sea and warmer ocean currents: running liquid could help to fracture these shelves, through heat and pressure, leaving the continent more exposed.

He said: "Despite extensive studies in Greenland and observations of individual meltwater drainage systems in Antarctica, we previously had little understanding of how water moves across the surface of Antarctica's ice sheets".

In one paper, the team took a closer look at the system they found on the Nansen Ice Shelf, which was first observed during the Shackleton and Scott expeditions.

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But the main damage to ice shelves comes from ocean water eroding their underbellies.

During the southern hemisphere summer, the melt-water is efficiently drained through sinkholes and a "roaring 400-foot-wide waterfall into the ocean", Bell said. In the face of this almost incomprehensible complexity, we ought to be humble about our current scientific understanding, and acknowledgement that climate research is-like any scientific endeavor-still very much a work in progress.

Numerous newly mapped channels start in mountains that poke between glaciers, or in areas where winds have whipped the snow covering off bluish ice. A better understanding of how, when and where the meltwater forms could help scientists better model how different ice shelves will respond to rising temperatures, which are expected to increase surface melt. Decades of satellite imagery and aerial photography have revealed an extensive network of lakes and rivers transporting liquid meltwater across the continent's ice shelves - almost 700 systems of connected pools and streams in total.

Regardless of what they find, Bell and Kingslake are excited to delve further into the meltwater systems, which Bell says show that "there's still so much beauty to be discovered on our planet".

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Meltwater Is Now Streaming Across Antarctica