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Recent reports from scientists of a giant melting ice sheet in Antarctica, which they say could potentially collapse within centuries and add more than 10 feet to sea levels, has garnered international media attention and wary concern from the scientific community.
Missing from most of the news reports is the Kansas University-based research center that gathered much of the data the studies relied on.
The Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, or CReSIS, has been studying the mechanics of ice on the Antarctic continent, as well as Greenland, since the 1990s and making its data publicly available for other scientists to study.
On airborne missions CReSIS researchers have been using increasingly refined radar technology to penetrate the ice and map the submerged topography in three dimensions, which is essential to understanding how glaciers move, change and melt. Understanding that, in turn, is critical to understanding how high and how quickly the oceans might rise in a warming world.
Scientists have been developing radar technology since World War II, but CReSIS, which is funded largely by the National Science Foundation, has used radar to penetrate and map the thick glaciers with a precision never seen before, said Prasad Gogineni, director of CReSIS and a distinguished professor of electrical engineering and computer science at KU.
Mapping the ice
Two recent studies found that glacial ice in West Antarctica is rapidly melting as naturally warm ocean water flows under the glaciers, pulled by Antarctic winds that many scientists think have intensified with climate change. If true, the glaciers could disintegrate within centuries, causing sea levels to rise.
Of critical interest is the topography of the ice. A team led by Ian Joughin, a glaciologist with the University of Washington, found that as the Thwaites Glacier retreats, it has few obstacles, such as mountains or hills, to slow its journey to the water.
“It’s similar to when you’re driving a car,” Gogineni said. “If the road is smooth and nice, you can go fast on it. If it’s a really rough road, you have to go slow.”
And the faster glaciers can move, the sooner they can release their ice into the ocean. Were the Thwaites to fully retreat, it could clear the way for the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet to release its ice into the ocean, further adding to sea level rise.
Joughin made the findings by combining satellite measurements with data from Operation IceBridge, a collaboration between CReSIS and NASA. Historically, IceBridge data were gathered in NASA’s D-8 aircraft, flown from Chile over Antarctica. Last winter, IceBridge was launched directly from the Antarctic ice for the first time, allowing the team to collect far more data on the mission than in the past.
Dealing with the future
The idea that the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet is unstoppable is subject to “a little bit of debate,” Gogineni said.
For one, the speed of glaciers can potentially be different at the surface than deeper down, making the overall speed harder to predict and model. Adding to the uncertainty, glacial dynamics are complicated, to put it mildly. “Glaciers have retreated and advanced,” Gogineni said. “They have to reach a steady state. It takes a long time to do that.”
All this is not to say society shouldn’t concern itself with the interaction of the climate and the ice sheets near the north and south poles.
“I think the climate is definitely changing and warming, and we can debate all we want whether it is caused by natural or human-induced, but it’s definitely changing,” Gogineni said. “What needs to be done is to really plan and do things that deal with these changes in the future.”