Antarctica Is Covered With Flowing Water, And That Worries Scientists

Antarctica rivers

Antarctica rivers

The research team believes that in a warming climate, more water is likely to be produced on the surface of Antarctica, which could accelerate the ice sheets' contribution to sea level rise.

Climate models will need to incorporate this new twist in Antarctic meltwater, and their predictions should become less dire than they now are.

But the meltwater streams could also help transport meltwater to more vulnerable parts of the ice.

In total, almost 700 seasonal ponds and channels streams were found, with some streams as long as 121 kilometres (75 miles).

"This study tells us that there is already a lot more melting going on than we thought", said Robin Bell, a polar scientists at the same institute and lead author of a second study, also published in Nature, on Antarctic melt-water.

"This is not in the future-this is widespread now and has been for decades", said Jonathan Kingslake, a glaciologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and lead author of the study, in a press release.

The study draws on satellite images of the continent dating back to 1973 and aerial photos collected by military planes from as early as 1947. When those ice shelves are destabilized or crumble, the glaciers behind them flow faster, ferrying more land-bound ice to the ocean and raising global sea levels.

Dr Jeremy Ely, from Sheffield University's geography department, said: "If melted completely, Antarctica's ice sheets contain enough water to raise global sea levels by around 58 metres".

Nothing is clear-cut yet though, and researchers spotted another meltwater stream channel on the Nansen ice shelf that they think might be helping to keep it together, by efficiently removing water from the shelf out to the ocean.

The first continent-wide survey of meltwater on Antarctica found alarming high numbers of pools, ponds, channels, rivers, and streams flowing across all sides of the continent.

Most of the melt ponds and streams form near rock outcrops or bluish ice exposed by the sharp winds that scour snow from the surface; these features are darker than the surrounding ice and so absorb more solar energy.

He said: "Despite extensive studies in Greenland and observations of individual meltwater drainage systems in Antarctica, we previously had little understanding of how water moves across the surface of Antarctica's ice sheets".

The new research shows that during warm years with considerable melt, a river system forms that eventually ends in a 400-foot-wide waterfall that can siphon off an entire year's worth of surface melt in just a week. We're looking at 520 square miles of East Antarctica's Amery Ice Shelf.

Newly recorded drainages usually start near mountains finding their way down through glaciers.

"When you turn up the temperature, it's only going to increase".

The movement "changes the way we think about the impact of meltwater", Dr. Bell says.