East Antarctica has the potential to reshape coastlines around the world through sea level rise, but scientists have long considered it more stable than its neighbor, West Antarctica. Now, new detailed NASA maps of ice velocity and elevation show that a group of glaciers spanning one-eighth of East Antarctica’s coast have begun to lose ice over the past decade, hinting at widespread changes in the ocean.
In recent years, researchers have warned that Totten Glacier, a behemoth that contains enough ice to raise sea levels by at least 11 feet, appears to be retreating because of warming ocean waters. Now, researchers have found that a group of four glaciers sitting to the west of Totten, plus a handful of smaller glaciers farther east, are also losing ice.
“Totten is the biggest glacier in East Antarctica, so it attracts most of the research focus,” said Catherine Walker, a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who presented her findings at a press conference on Monday at the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington. “But once you start asking what else is happening in this region, it turns out that other nearby glaciers are responding in a similar way to Totten.”
For her research, Walker used new maps of ice velocity and surface height elevation that are being created as part of a new NASA project called Inter-mission Time Series of Land Ice Velocity and Elevation, or ITS_LIVE. Researchers with ITS_LIVE will be launching a new initiative in early 2019 to track the movement of the world’s ice, which includes the creation of a 30-year record of satellite observations of changes in the surface elevation of glaciers, ice sheets and ice shelves, and a detailed record of variations in ice velocity starting in 2013.
Walker found that four glaciers west of Totten, in an area called Vincennes Bay, have lowered their surface height by about 9 feet since 2008 – before that year, there had been no measured change in elevation for these glaciers. Farther east, a collection of glaciers along the Wilkes Land coast have approximately doubled their rate of lowering since around 2009, and their surface is now going down by about 0.8 feet every year.
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