Researchers Establish Link Between Antarctic Topography and Rate of Ice Melting

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Antarctica is a mountainous continent: Image courtesy of NASA

Think of Antarctica – and if you’re like many people, you will think of a blank canvas.

Anyone familiar with the tales of Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen will know that they had to traverse glaciers and mountain ranges, but the interior of the continent remains, in the popular imagination at least, a vast, flat, white desert.

Yet the ground below the ice sheet is anything but smooth – and that has had, and continues to have, implications for both climate and sea level change.

Antarctica: What’s Under the Ice?

Logic, along with just a little knowledge of earth processes, indicates that there will be a landscape buried under the ice even if we can’t see any of it (and of course, with peaks appearing through the ice, we can).

It’s a landscape that has mountains and valleys, lakes and streams – and which, though currently subjected to alteration by ice, is influenced by other dynamic forces as well.

Now, new research undertaken by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the University of Aberdeen has not only revealed a major new feature of that landscape, but also sheds some light on how the topography interacts with the glacial processes – and, most crucially, the wasting (melting) of the Antarctic ice sheet.

Over the last 50 years or so, new technologies such as radar and remote sensing have allowed scientists to begin to ‘see’ the shape of the Antarctic landscape. ‘We know more than we ever have done about the underlying topography,’ the study’s lead author, Dr. Rob Bingham, told Decoded Science. ‘This is not to say we’re done – there are still large, unexplored areas about which we know little.’

Antarctic Ice Sheet: Topography and Mass Wasting

The study focused on a particularly remote area of West Antarctica known as the Ferrigno Ice Stream. Measurements indicated that the ice stream overlies a rift valley, a major feature which is the result of two of the earth’s tectonic plates moving apart. Researchers were able to link the presence of this rift, and warming of the ocean, to increasing flow of the ice stream.

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