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West Antarctic Ice Sheet Ready to Break Off?

Image: West Antarctic Ice Sheet Ready to Break Off?

A new rift in West Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier, photographed during a NASA Operation IceBridge flyover on Nov. 4, 2016. (Screengrab via Twitter/NASA/Nathan Kurtz)

By    |   Tuesday, 29 Nov 2016 09:16 AM

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is believed to be breaking up from the inside out, which could lead to rising sea levels in the future.

The Pine Island Glacier, part of an ice shelf that bounds the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, is one of two glaciers expected to undergo "rapid retreat," sending ice from the interior of the ice sheet into the ocean melt, according to a statement from The Ohio State University.

The melting could lead to coastline flooding around the world. The detailed report on the research was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letter.

"It's generally accepted that it's no longer a question of whether the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will melt, it's a question of when," the study's lead author Ian Howat, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State said in the university's statement.

"This kind of rifting behavior provides another mechanism for rapid retreat of these glaciers, adding to the probability that we may see significant collapse of West Antarctica in our lifetimes," Howat continued.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post cited another study published in the journal Nature, which stated that the Pine Island Glacier was dumping 50 billion tons of ice into the oceans annually.

"This is happening because the glacier has been retreating backwards and downhill — the marine-based glacier rests in very deep waters, and the terrain behind where it currently touches the ocean gets even deeper inland," said Washington Post writer Chris Mooney.

"It's an unstable configuration, and scientists have long suspected that warm ocean waters created the problem by effectively un-grounding the glacier from a roughly 800 meter deep undersea ridge, upon which it was resting in a more stable alignment," he continued.

The Ohio State statement said that a nearly 225-square-mile iceberg broke off the Pine Island Glacier in 2015, but researchers using satellite images after the discovery determined that a 20-mile rift had originally formed in 2013. That rift pushed upward for two years until it broke through the surface and created the iceberg.

Researchers said that similar breakups have occurred in the Greenland Ice Sheet, the Ohio State statement noted.

"We need to understand exactly how these valleys and rifts form, and what they mean for ice shelf stability," Howat said in the Ohio State statement. "We're limited in what information we can get from space, so this will mean targeting air and field campaigns to collect more detailed observations."

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The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is believed to be breaking up from the inside out, which could lead to rising sea levels in the future.
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2016-16-29
Tuesday, 29 Nov 2016 09:16 AM
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