The water has never been so warm around the largest glacier in the world

The East Antarctic ice sheet seemed to be preserved from the effects of global warming. But further study of the region’s waters shows that they are getting warmer, largely due to the disruption of the Earth’s climate.

Our results underscore the urgency of limiting global warming to less than 1.5℃, in order to avoid the most catastrophic climate damage “, warn the authors of a new study published on August 2, 2022 in Nature Climate Change. These works, commented on in The Conversationmore specifically signal the warming of the waters around the East Antarctic ice sheet, the largest glacier on the planet — almost the size of the United States.

It is already known and acted that climate change has an impact on the waters of the planet. Rising seas are among these referenced consequences, as is ocean acidification. But added to this is the fact that their temperature increases and their circulation changes by leading warm waters into regions where they have no place there.

Map of Antarctica from the sky. // Source: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

This is precisely what these climatologists have sought to quantify in East Antarctica, discovering that this glacier, although considered one of the most stable to date, is threatened like many others.

0.3 to 0.9 degrees more per decade since 1990

The authors studied no less than 90 years of oceanographic observations on the region in question. They describe global warming as ” unequivocal “. In the waters of southern Antarctica, the rate of increase in temperature is estimated at 0.1 to 0.4 degrees more per decade, during the first half of the 20th century, then the trend accelerated. During the 1990s, the rate of warming increased to 0.3 to 0.9 degrees per decade until today.

The phenomenon is quite clearly linked to climate change, but not in the most instinctive way. Just because the planet is warming doesn’t mean the waters in this basin are warming up. The reason is to be found in the disruption of the climate itself:

  • The increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere contributes to changes in the direction of the wind, bringing westerly winds towards Antarctica in summer;
  • West winds bring with them warm waters.

What effect on the glacier?

Where West Antarctica is known to be threatened with alarming rates of melting, the East Antarctic ice sheet seemed to be spared, for now, the effects of warming, thanks to very cold waters – ice sheets with dense frozen water — which encircle it. But these works show that this preservation could not last very long if the trend continues to get carried away.

Part of our research has focused on the Vanderford Glacier in East Antarctica. There we observed the hot water replacing the cold water of the dense plateau “, they relate. However, as the authors point out, the movement of warm waters towards the region is expected to intensify as the 21st century progresses — in connection with climate change.

If the stability of the glacier were to be affected by this phenomenon, and it began to melt, the consequences would obviously be problematic. ” Warmer waters and resulting sea level rise can damage marine life and threaten coastal settlements “, warn the authors.

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