Quantcast

Giant Waterfall in Antarctica Worries Scientists

Popular
A 130-metre-wide waterfall drains meltwater from the Nansen Ice Shelf into the ocean. Stuart Rankin via Flickr

By Tim Radford

Scientists poring over military and satellite imagery have mapped the unimaginable: a network of rivers, streams, ponds, lakes and even a waterfall, flowing over the ice shelf of a continent with an annual mean temperature of more than -50C.


In 1909 Ernest Shackleton and his fellow explorers on their way to the magnetic South Pole found that they had to cross and recross flowing streams and lakes on the Nansen Ice Shelf.

Antarctic Waterways

Now, U.S. scientists report in the journal Nature that they studied photographs taken by military aircraft from 1947 and satellite images from 1973 to identify almost 700 seasonal networks of ponds, channels and braided streams flowing from all sides of the continent, as close as 600km to the South Pole and at altitudes of 1,300 meters.

And they found that such systems carried water for 120km. A second research team reporting a companion study in the same issue of Nature identified one meltwater system with an ocean outflow that ended in a 130-meter wide waterfall, big enough to drain the entire surface melt in a matter of days.

In a world rapidly warming as humans burn ever more fossil fuels, to add ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, researchers expect to observe an increase in the volume of meltwater on the south polar surface. Researchers have predicted the melt rates could double by 2050. What isn't clear is whether this will make the shelf ice around the continent—and shelf ice slows the flow of glaciers from the polar hinterland—any less stable.

"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, who led the research.

"I think most polar scientists have considered water moving across the surface of Antarctica to be extremely rare. But we found a lot of it, over very large areas."

The big question is: has the level of surface melting increased in the last seven decades? The researchers don't yet have enough information to make a judgment.

"We have no reason to think they have," Dr Kingslake said. "But without further work, we can't tell. Now, looking forward, it will be really important to work out how these systems will change in response to warming, and how this will affect the ice sheets."

Many of the flow systems seem to start in the Antarctic mountains, near outcrops of exposed rock, or in places where fierce winds have scoured snow off the ice beneath. Rocks are dark, the exposed ice is of a blue colour, and during the long days of the Antarctic summer both would absorb more solar energy than white snow or ice. This would be enough to start the melting process.

The Antarctic is already losing ice, as giant floating shelves suddenly fracture and drift north. There is a theory that meltwater could be part of the fissure mechanism, as it seeps deep into the shelves.

Drainage Theory

But the companion study, led by the polar scientist Robin Bell of the Lamont-Doherty Observatory suggests that drainage on the Nansen Ice Shelf might help to keep the ice intact, perhaps by draining away the meltwater in the dramatic waterfall the scientists had identified.

"It could develop this way in other places, or things could just devolve into giant slush puddles," she said. "Ice is dynamic, and complex, and we don't have the data yet."

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Natural Resources Defense Council

By Emily Deanne

Shower shoes? Check. Extra-long sheets? Yep. Energy efficiency checklist? No worries — we've got you covered there. If you're one of the nation's 12.1 million full-time undergraduate college students, you no doubt have a lot to keep in mind as you head off to school. If you're reading this, climate change is probably one of them, and with one-third of students choosing to live on campus, dorm life can have a big impact on the health of our planet. In fact, the annual energy use of one typical dormitory room can generate as much greenhouse gas pollution as the tailpipe emissions of a car driven more than 156,000 miles.

Read More Show Less
Kokia drynarioides, commonly known as Hawaiian tree cotton, is a critically endangered species of flowering plant that is endemic to the Big Island of Hawaii. David Eickhoff / Wikipedia

By Lorraine Chow

Kokia drynarioides is a small but significant flowering tree endemic to Hawaii's dry forests. Native Hawaiians used its large, scarlet flowers to make lei. Its sap was used as dye for ropes and nets. Its bark was used medicinally to treat thrush.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Frederick Bass / Getty Images

States that invest heavily in renewable energy will generate billions of dollars in health benefits in the next decade instead of spending billions to take care of people getting sick from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, according to a new study from MIT and reported on by The Verge.

Read More Show Less
Aerial view of lava flows from the eruption of volcano Kilauea on Hawaii, May 2018. Frizi / iStock / Getty Images

Hawaii's Kilauea volcano could be gearing up for an eruption after a pond of water was discovered inside its summit crater for the first time in recorded history, according to the AP.

Read More Show Less
A couple works in their organic garden. kupicoo / E+ / Getty Images

By Kristin Ohlson

From where I stand inside the South Dakota cornfield I was visiting with entomologist and former USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren, all the human-inflicted traumas to Earth seem far away. It isn't just that the corn is as high as an elephant's eye — are people singing that song again? — but that the field burgeons and buzzes and chirps with all sorts of other life, too.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A competitor in action during the Drambuie World Ice Golf Championships in Uummannaq, Greenland on April 9, 2001. Michael Steele / Allsport / Getty Images

Greenland is open for business, but it's not for sale, Greenland's foreign minister Ane Lone Bagger told Reuters after hearing that President Donald Trump asked his advisers about the feasibility of buying the world's largest island.

Read More Show Less
AFP / Getty Images / S. Platt

Humanity faced its hottest month in at least 140 years in July, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said on Thursday. The finding confirms similar analysis provided by its EU counterparts.

Read More Show Less
Newly established oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

By Hans Nicholas Jong

Indonesia's president has made permanent a temporary moratorium on forest-clearing permits for plantations and logging.

It's a policy the government says has proven effective in curtailing deforestation, but whose apparent gains have been criticized by environmental activists as mere "propaganda."

Read More Show Less