Antarctica's plumbing system more dynamic than previously believed

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Washington, Sept 2 (ANI): Scientists, using space-based lasers on a NASA satellite have created the most comprehensive inventory of lakes that actively drain or fill under Antarctica's ice, which has revealed a continental plumbing system that is more dynamic than previously thought.

"Even though Antarctica's ice sheet looks static, the more we watch it, the more we see there is activity going on there all the time," said Benjamin Smith of the University of Washington in Seattle, who led the study.

Unlike most lakes, Antarctic lakes are under pressure from the ice above. That pressure can push melt water from place to place like water in a squeezed balloon.

The water moves under the ice in a broad, thin layer, but also through a linked cavity system. This flow can resupply other lakes near and far.

Understanding this plumbing is important, as it can lubricate glacier flow and send the ice speeding toward the ocean, where it can melt and contribute to sea level change.

But figuring out what's happening beneath miles of ice is a challenge.

Researchers led by Smith analyzed 4.5 years of ice elevation data from NASA's Ice, Cloud and land Elevation satellite (ICESat) to create the most complete inventory to date of changes in the Antarctic plumbing system.

The team has mapped the location of 124 active lakes, estimated how fast they drain or fill, and described the implications for lake and ice-sheet dynamics.

Smith, Helen Fricker, a geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and colleagues extended their elevation analysis to cover most of the Antarctic continent and 4.5 years of data from ICESat's Geoscience Laser Altimeter System (GLAS).

By observing how ice sheet elevation changed between the two or three times the satellite flew over a section every year, researchers could determine which lakes were active.

They also used the elevation changes and the properties of water and ice to estimate the volume change.

Only a few of the more than 200 previously identified lakes were confirmed active, implying that lakes in East Antarctica's high-density "Lakes District" are mostly inactive and do not contribute much to ice sheet changes.

Most of the 124 newly observed active lakes turned up in coastal areas, at the head of large drainage systems, which have the largest potential to contribute to sea level change.

According to Robert Bindschadler, a glaciologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, "The survey shows that most active subglacial lakes are located where the ice is moving fast, which implies a relationship." (ANI)

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