The researchers are trying to study glacier or ice sheet behaviour with aid of boulders the size of footballs that were deposited by the three glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment in the region.
An urgent task is to put recent ice sheet changes into a historical context, and determine if these are part of a natural retreat since the end of the last glacial period (about 20 thousands years ago), or if they are a result of recent human-induced climate change. "Until now we didn't know much about the long-term history of this part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet because the region is incredibly remote and inaccessible," lead author Dr Joanne Johnson said, Science Daily reported.
''Our geological findings add a new piece to the jigsaw and will be used for improving computer models -- the most important tools we have for predicting future change,'' he added. Initial results show that Pine Island Glacier has 'thinned' by around 4 centimetres per year over the past 5,000 years, while Smith and Pope Glaciers thinned by just over 2 cm per year during the past 14,500 years.
Pine Island Glacier is of great interest to scientists worldwide as it has been thinning at a rate of more than 1 m/year and its flow rate has accelerated over the past 15 years. The location at which the glacier starts to float on the sea also retreated at a rate of more than 1 km/year during part of this period.