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Recent Loss of Ice in Antarctica Disturbs Earth’s Gravity Field

Recent Loss of Ice in Antarctica Disturbs Earth’s Gravity Field

May 26, 2015

Whenever I think of Antarctica melting, I can’t help but picture those awful end-of-the-world “movies” (notice the quotation marks) where one large piece of ice melts, a politician gets blamed, and suddenly a 400-foot tidal wave takes out California.  On May 21st, 2015 a paper was published by a team of scientists at the University of Bristol stating that there was a recent increase of ice loss from a formerly stable region in Antarctica.  While this may not have caused California to go underwater as films like 2012 would suggest, it was shown to disturb earth’s gravitational field, as recorded by a pair of satellites.

The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) is a join mission of NASA and the German Aerospace Center.  The main purpose of the twin satellite operation is to measure changes in the earth’s gravitational field based on the fact that gravity is determined by mass.  Thus, a large sudden loss of ice in Antarctica would definitely be detectable by GRACE and it certainly was.  While GRACE can detect ice mass loss, it cannot detect ice mass movement.  Starting in 2010, changes in the Southern Antarctic Peninsula, the previous stable region of Antarctica, have been recorded using another satellite system, Cryo-Sat 2.

Cryo-Sat 2 is a mission of the European Space Agency that is dedicated to detecting ice.  The satellite was able to capture the dramatic events happening at Antarctica’s Southern Peninsula.  “There was nothing happening, and then, all of a sudden in the last five years, all of these glaciers started to send ice into the ocean,” says Bert Wouters, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol, UK, and an author of the study.

The scientists analyzed 5 years of data by the Cryo-Sat 2 and found that multiple glaciers along this peninsula have started to shed approximately 55 trillion liters of water into the ocean and an average of 4 meters of ice surface loss each year.  The scientists were able to rule out temperature and weather patterns as the source of the change which lead them to the culprit: warming oceans.

Ice shelves in the region have lost roughly 1/5 of their thickness in the last twenty years which has attributed to reducing the resistance force of the glaciers.  Unfortunately, most of the ice of the Antarctica Peninsula is in bedrock below sea level, which gets deeper inland.  This is a chief concern as even if the glaciers retreat, the warm water will just follow and lead to more ice melting.

To date, the glaciers have added approximately 300 cubic km of water to the ocean which is roughly 350,000 Empire State Buildings combined.  It may not have taken out California or New York City, but its effect and message is not to be taken lightly.  Dr. Wouters and his team will continue to collect data to see if they can determine just how much longer the thinning will continue.

Livingstone Island in the Southern Peninsula of Antarctica.

Livingstone Island in the Southern Peninsula of Antarctica.


For more information on this story, check out:

The European Space Agency 

Science Magazine

Andrea Kuipers - I am a well versed, interdisciplinary scientist with a background in marketing, media, & journalism. I am currently finishing up degree number five at Cal State University Fullerton & working in a biochemical/biotechnology lab engineering proteins. Linkedin

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