Latest research shows Antarctic glaciers are experiencing long-term melt

Antarctica appears to be melting and contributing to the slow rise in the oceans, with around 36 cubic miles of ice from glaciers in West Antarctica over the past decade, researchers have reported.

The study, published at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco, used two sets of radar data from the European remote sensing satellite, and revealed that the total melt water is enough to raise sea levels worldwide by around one-sixtieth of an inch.

“These glaciers are thinning rapidly,” said one of the researchers, Dr Eric Rignot from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena in California. According to Rignot, a satellite instrument designed to detect deformations in the ground shape found no areas gaining in mass, with most of Antarctica appearing to be stable. However, the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers in West Antarctica, the two largest on the continent, are noticeably thinning.

The findings counter results of an earlier study, which drew on ground-based observations to conclude that Antarctica was gaining in mass due to snow falling in the interior. However, ocean levels have been rising at a rate of about eight inches per century, half of which is attributable to the fact that water expands as temperatures rise, and 20% appears to be water running down mountain glaciers. The remaining 30% is a mystery, but the new data suggests that it is coming from Antarctica.

The use of a second instrument on the satellite, one that measures altitude, has caused Dr Andrew Shepherd, a research fellow at the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at University college London, to reach a similar conclusion. A smaller, neighbouring glacier, the Smith glacier, is losing mass even more quickly, he said.

The reason for the melting is not clear, however, as the global temperature increase of about one degree Fahrenheit over the last century would have negligible effect on the climate of Antarctica, say scientists.

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