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Antarctica Could Melt Even Faster Than We Thought

A new model developed by researchers at Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) suggests Antarctica’s ice could be melting at an accelerated rate, potentially helping to speed up the rate of rise of the level of the oceans.

The researchers say their model takes into account an often overlooked ocean current that flows along the Antarctic coast, in addition to simulating how quickly fresh water, which has melted from ice sheets, can trap warmer ocean water at the base of the ice, leading to even faster warming and melting.

Ice caps are outgrowths of the Antarctic ice sheet (ice sheet), which is found where the ice extends beyond land and floats on the ocean. These caps, which are several hundred meters thick, act as a protective wall for the ice located on land, preventing all the ice from sliding into the ocean (which would greatly increase the level of seas).

However, warming of the atmosphere and oceans caused by climate change are increasing the rate at which these ice sheets are melting, threatening their ability to act as blocking structures for the rest of the ice in this area at the South Pole. of our planet.

“If this mechanism that we have studied is active in the real world, it could mean that the rate of ice melt could be 20 to 40% higher than the predictions included in global climate models, which generally cannot simulate the strong currents circulating near the Antarctic coast,” said Andy Thompson, one of the authors of the study published in Science Advances.

As part of this work, the researchers focused on a single region of Antarctica: the West Antarctic Peninsula. The continent is disk-like, except where this peninsula extends into the ocean, notably being in an area of ​​lower, warmer latitudes. This is where the southern continent is most affected by climate change.

The research team had previously deployed self-driving vehicles to the area, and scientists used data from seals with attached measuring devices to assess the temperature and salinity of water and ice.

The model developed by those responsible for this study, which takes into account the ocean current often passing on the radar, illustrates how fresh water from the melting ice of this peninsula quickly circulates on the surface of the ocean and traps the relatively warm salty sea water under the ice caps. This then leads to the melting of the latter from below.

Ultimately, this phenomenon can spread all along the Antarctic coast, due to the current, which would mean that the melting is accelerating even thousands of kilometers from where the warming is first felt.

“There are aspects of the climate system that we’re still figuring out,” says Thompson. “As we are able to further develop our ability to model interactions between the ocean, ice sheets and atmosphere, we can make more accurate predictions, with better control of uncertainty. We may need to revise some of the predictions about sea level rise for the next few decades or the next century. This work we will do in the future. »

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