Dustin Schroeder’s research lab finds new data on potential thaw in Antarctica
The Wilkes Subglacial Basin in East Antarctica holds enough ice to raise global sea levels by more than 10 feet.
The researchers collected data from existing radar surveys conducted by planes flying over the glacier. The planes record reflections of electromagnetic signals that have traveled through the ice sheet and bounced off the ground beneath it. Eliza Dawson, a PhD student in geophysics, and her colleagues developed a new technique to analyze this data, turning cross-sectional images of ice and bedrock into information about the temperature conditions at the base of the ice sheet.
Their paper 'Heterogeneous Basal Thermal Conditions Underpinning the Adélie-George V Coast, East Antarctica,’ published January 19 in Geophysical Research Letters. It shows that the Wilkes Subglacial Basin in East Antarctica, which holds enough ice to raise global sea levels by more than 10 feet, could be closer to runaway melting than anyone realized.
"There hasn’t been much analysis in this region – there’s huge volume of ice there, but it has been relatively stable,” said Eliza Dawson, first author on the paper. “We’re looking at the temperature at the base of the ice sheet for the first time and how close it is to potentially melting."
The Wilkes Subglacial Basin is about the size of California and empties into the Southern Ocean through a relatively small section of the coastline. Dawson and her colleagues found evidence that the base of the ice sheet is close to thawing. This raises the possibility that this coastal region, which holds back the ice within the entire Wilkes Subglacial Basin, could be sensitive to even small changes in temperature.
Dustin states, "The temperature of the ice affects how much the radar is reflected in multiple ways, so a single measurement is ambiguous. This statistical approach involved essentially picking regions that you could assume were either frozen or thawed and comparing other radar signatures to them. It allowed us to say whether other areas of the ice sheet were definitely frozen, definitely thawed, or tough to call."
The researchers found large areas of frozen and thawed ground interspersed across the region, but the majority of the area couldn’t be definitively classified as one or the other. In some cases, this may be because of changes in the geometry of the ice sheet or other complications in the data, but it could also mean that large sections of ground under the ice sheet are either close to thawing or made up of closely intermixed frozen and thawed areas. If the latter is true, the glaciers in the Wilkes Subglacial Basin could reach a tipping point with only a small increase in temperature at the base of the ice sheet.
"This suggests that glacial retreat could be possible in the future," states Eliza Dawson (PhD candidate). "This part of East Antarctica has been largely overlooked, but we need to understand how it could evolve and become more unstable. What would need to happen to start seeing mass loss?"
Excerpted from Stanford Report, 'Currently stable parts of East Antarctica may be closer to melting than anyone realized.'