Antarctica’s biggest ice shelf moves daily

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In the remote, icy expanse of Antarctica, the movement of glaciers is a spectacle not easily observed by the human eye. Among these icy giants, ice streams function as natural conveyors, channeling vast amounts of ice and sediment toward the ocean.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis have uncovered remarkable daily shifts in the Ross Ice Shelf, the continent’s largest ice shelf, which is as large as France.

This shelf experiences a sudden shift of 6 to 8 centimeters (about 3 inches) at least once a day, influenced by the activity of the Whillans Ice Stream.

This discovery is crucial, as the Ross Ice Shelf plays a pivotal role in the stability of Antarctica’s ice. Acting as a kind of dam, ice shelves regulate the flow of glaciers and ice streams into the ocean.

Their collapse would lead to faster glacier movement and increased ice melting at sea, contributing to rising sea levels.

The study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, highlights the movement caused by the Whillans Ice Stream, a significant river of ice that feeds into the Ross Ice Shelf.

The movement isn’t something you’d feel under your feet; it’s too slow for human senses, occurring over several minutes. This subtlety has kept it under the radar until now, despite the presence of explorers and scientists on the Ross Ice Shelf for over a century.

The researchers liken the ice stream’s activity to a slip event, where a large section of ice suddenly lurches forward, a process that could be compared to the stick-slip motion preceding an earthquake.

This action doesn’t just intrigue scientists because of its scale and the engineering feat of detecting it. It’s also about understanding the balance of our planet’s icy regions and their response to environmental changes.

While these slip events are not directly attributed to human-induced climate change, they’re a natural phenomenon possibly linked to variations in water beneath the ice stream.

However, they play into broader concerns about the stability of ice shelves in a warming world and their role in sea-level rise.

This movement could also potentially trigger icequakes and fractures within the ice shelf, events that, while part of its normal life cycle, underscore the dynamic and fragile nature of our planet’s icy frontiers.

The research not only adds a new layer of understanding to the complex dynamics of ice movement in Antarctica but also raises questions about the future stability of ice shelves and their role in our global climate system.

With the memory of smaller, thinner ice shelves disintegrating and historical evidence of the Ross Ice Shelf’s collapse around 120,000 years ago, scientists are keenly aware of the potential implications of their findings.

The research findings can be found in Geophysical Research Letters.

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