Warm water and air are both cutting into ice in a previously stable part of Antarctica.
East Antarctica is remote even by Antarctic standards. Harsh winds and ocean currents have largely cut off the region from the rest of the world.
That’s left its massive stores of ice largely intact, especially compared to West Antarctica where a massive meltdown is underway that could raise seas by 10 or more feet in the coming centuries. But as carbon pollution warms the air and the ocean, there are signs that the region’s stability is under threat. Two new studies of different ice shelves — tongues of ice that essentially act as bathtub plugs — have seen major melting that could portend a less stable future for the region.
So first, about those ice shelves. They are indeed like bathtub plugs. Except instead of keeping water in a tub, they keep ice on the continent of Antarctica. That’s good because when it ends up melting into the ocean, it causes seas to rise. East Antarctica contains about two-thirds of all the ice in Antarctica so its stability is crucial for the world’s coastal areas.
But strange things have been happening recently. During a 2014 flyover of the Roi Baudouin ice shelf, scientists noticed a curious depression more than a mile wide in the undulating ice. When they finally investigated it in January this year, they found walls that were about 10 feet high and meltwater pouring into moulins — features that funnel surface meltwater into the heart of the ice.
The moulins were just one sign of melt happening on the surface. When scientists drilled a hole in the ice and lowered a camera, they found an otherworldly blue lake stretching more than half a mile across.