Until recently, scientists and activists concerned with the effects of climate change have focused on the west side when it came to the topic of Antarctica. In 2014, they announced that significant damage to the west side could result in a 10-foot sea level rise. Yesterday, March 16, a new edition of the journal Nature Geoscience explained that East Antarctica is posing just as much as, if not more of, a threat to the globe.
The research has centered on the Totten Glacier – East Antarctica’s largest outlet of ice to the ocean. A diverse team of international scientists flew over the Totten Glacier, taking measurements to see its levels of retreat, and why it might be happening. They now know that if the glacier completely collapses, it can contribute to a global sea level rise by at least 11 feet; and it’s likely, because warm ocean waters are underneath the ice.
The Totten Glacier, 90 miles by 22 miles, has similar properties to those of West Antarctica. One major feature is the ice shelves that slope out from the enormous land of ice into the ocean. The ice sheets obviously contain a substantial amount of water, and if they loose their coolness from the surrounding warm waters, they have the potential to flow very quickly into the sea.
By taking high-tech measurements of gravity on the airplane and radar measurements over the glacier, they discovered that in some parts of the ice shelves, there is 1,600 feet of thickness. However, the greater problem is the discovery of massive gaps underneath the shelves where there are catchments – large collections of ice and snow that flow from deep interior basins.
“The catchment of Totten Glacier is covered by nearly 2½ miles of ice, filling a sub-ice basin reaching depths of at least one mile below sea level,” said researcher Donald Blankenship.
While this depth at face value to an ordinary person may not seem treacherous, because saltwater (the warmer water) is higher in density, the saltwater is the water far below sea level, and thus, the water that is getting into the basin which can cause dramatic melting. Even if the ice can appear in photographs for some time, it may just be floating ice, as opposed to part of the land that once was.
However, the scientists are missing data on just how warm that is. Though scientifically sensible, they have not yet been able to measure the temperature of the ocean water that is coming in contact with the glacier, yet. And this accessibility is something that the researchers are calling for urgently.
Scientists see Antarctica as an important place that demands much attention. Because of its massive size, with the force of gravity Antarctica pulls the rest of the ocean towards it. However, with major ice loss, as is predicted, the ocean may recede towards the Northern Hemisphere in great quantities. For the United States, especially the coastal cities, it could be devastating.