Giant hidden lakes discovered draining under Antarctic glacier

A part of the Thwaites Glacier on the sting of West Antarctica.

Thwaites Glacier on the sting of West Antarctica is likely one of the planet’s quickest-shifting glaciers. Analysis exhibits that it’s sliding unstoppably into the ocean, primarily as a result of hotter seawater lapping at its underside.

However the particulars of its collapse stay unsure. The small print are needed to offer a timeline for when to anticipate 2 ft of worldwide sea degree rise, and when this glacier’s loss will assist destabilize the a lot bigger West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Current efforts have used satellites to map the underlying terrain, which impacts how shortly the ice mass will transfer, and measure the glacier’s thickness and velocity to know the physics of its modifications.

Researchers on the College of Washington and the College of Edinburgh used knowledge from the European Area Company’s CryoSat-2 to determine a sudden drainage of huge swimming pools under Thwaites Glacier, one in every of two quick-shifting glaciers on the fringe of the ice sheet. The research revealed in The Cryosphere finds 4 interconnected lakes drained within the eight months from June 2013 and January 2014. The glacier sped up by about 10 % throughout that point, displaying that the glacier’s lengthy-time period motion is pretty oblivious to trickles at its underside.

“This was an enormous occasion, and it confirms that the lengthy-time period velocity-up that we’re observing for this glacier might be pushed by different elements, most certainly within the ocean,” stated corresponding writer Ben Smith, a glaciologist with the UW’s Utilized Physics Laboratory. “The water movement on the mattress might be not controlling the velocity.”


Different glaciers, like some in Alaska and Greenland, may be very vulnerable to modifications in meltwater stream. Water there can pond beneath the glacier till it lifts off elements of its mattress, and abruptly surges ahead. This will improve a glacier’s velocity by a number of occasions and account for many of its movement.

Researchers weren’t sure whether or not such an impact may be at play with Thwaites Glacier.

“It has been troublesome to see particulars about water movement underneath the ice,” Smith stated.

For the brand new research, the authors use a brand new method to find drops on the glacier’s floor of as much as 70 ft (20 meters) over a 20 kilometer by forty kilometer space. Calculations present it was possible because of the emptying of 4 interconnected lakes, the most important concerning the measurement of Lake Washington, far under. The height drainage fee was about eight,500 cubic ft (240 cubic meters) per second, about half the move of the Hudson River — the most important meltwater outflow but reported for subglacial lakes on this area.

“This lake drainage is the most important water motion that you’d anticipate to see on this space, and it did not change the glacier’s velocity by that a lot,” Smith stated.

The reason being doubtless that Thwaites Glacier is shifting shortly sufficient, he stated, that friction is heating up its underside to ice’s melting level. The glacier’s base is already moist and including extra water does not make it rather more slippery.

The brand new research helps earlier UW analysis from 2014 displaying that Thwaites Glacier will doubtless collapse inside 200 to 900 years to trigger seas to rise by 2 ft. These calculations have been made with out detailed maps of how water flows on the glacier’s underbelly. The brand new outcomes recommend that does not actually matter.

“If Thwaites Glacier had actually jumped in response to this lake drainage, then that might have advised that we’d like a extra detailed mannequin of the place water is flowing on the mattress,” Smith stated. “Radar knowledge from NASA’s Operation Ice Bridge program has informed us rather a lot concerning the form of Thwaites Glacier, however it’s very troublesome to see how water is shifting. Based mostly on this outcome, that will not be an enormous drawback”

Melting on the ice sheet base would refill the lakes in 20 to eighty years, Smith stated. Over time meltwater regularly collects in depressions within the bedrock. When the water reaches a sure degree it breaches a weak level, then flows by way of channels within the ice. As Thwaites Glacier thins close to the coast, its floor will grow to be steeper, Smith stated, and the distinction in ice strain between inland areas and the coast might push water coastward and trigger extra lakes to empty.

He hopes to use the identical methods to review lake drainage under different glaciers, to know how water circulate on the base impacts general glacier motion. When NASA’s ICESat-2 satellite tv for pc launches in 2018 the calculations will probably be straightforward to do with excessive precision.

“In 2018 this modifications from a tough challenge to a simple undertaking, and I am enthusiastic about that,” Smith stated.

The above submit is reprinted from Materials offered by University of Washington.


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