TechShocking ESA report. Antarctica is losing its guardians

Shocking ESA report. Antarctica is losing its guardians

Images source: © Wikimedia Commons

6:19 PM EDT, October 15, 2023

The European Space Agency has presented a report on the state of Antarctica's shelf glaciers. It includes 25 years of satellite studies of the continent. During this time, the guardians of the western part of Antarctica are noticeably disappearing, and it's there that the "doomsday glacier" is fighting for its life.

Floating ice shelves are extensions of the Antarctic ice sheet. Their state is important because they prevent the continent from losing its ice cover. The faster they lose volume, the faster the calving process of continental glaciers proceeds.

The importance of shelf glaciers in Antarctica

An example of the importance of shelf icebergs is the famous "Doomsday Glacier", Thwaites. Its degradation is capable of raising the global sea level by about 26 inches. That's over twice as much as the increase recorded over the past century. Meanwhile, its shelf glacier is in a dire state, and it is likely the only thing protecting the "Doomsday Glacier" from rapidly crumbling into ice mountains.

Thwaites measures itself 75 miles wide, and its ice shelf is a light, 28 miles wide and about 0.3 miles thick sea ice area. It remains stable thanks to an underwater mountain, rising about 31 miles east of the "glacier of doom". It's a very modest guardian, and the future doesn't look optimistic for it.

According to the ESA, in just a quarter of a century, 71 out of 162 of Antarctica's shelf glaciers have lost almost half of their volume. In this way, nearly 18 trillion gallons of meltwater have already ended up in the ocean. This is a huge surplus of freshwater, which affects ocean circulation patterns, and is just a drop in the ocean of Antarctica's potential.

The dramatic situation of Western shelf glaciers

Another argument against the future of Thwaites is the fact that it is located in the western part of the continent. This is where the greatest degradation of Antarctica's ice shelves is taking place, which could lead to the thawing of the entire continent.

Antarctic ice shelf demise

The ESA report is not optimistic at all. Indeed, on the eastern fringes of Antarctica, the shelf glaciers remain undamaged, and even increase their volume.

The neighboring Thwaites shelf glacier, the mighty Pine Island, has lost approximately 1.43 trillion short tons of ice over the past 25 years. It seems that this deficit was "made up for" by the Amery ice shelf located at the opposite end of Antarctica, which gained about 1.32 trillion short tons of ice. However, these phenomena are not dependent on each other.

Disappearance of Antarctic shelf glaciers

According to scientists, there is no chance that the glaciers of West Antarctica will ever rebuild their volume. In their case, most of the volume loss is structural and results from the melting of the bottom of the shelf glacier. The natural loss of ice originating from the calving of continental glaciers is minor.

The primary cause of degradation of the West Antarctic ice shelves is global warming. It's this that causes the ocean waters to be too warm, and their circulation seems to win the battle with the ice cover.

The shelf glaciers of the western part of the continent are disappearing irrevocably. It is a very fast, yet lasting trend. In the long term, it will not only have a significant impact on the south pole region but the entire planet.

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