Ice streams in Antarctica carry ice from the center of the continent to the ocean and there seems to be a huge amount of water buried under one, which can affect its flow

The Earth

May 5, 2022

View of the field camp of the Whillans Ice Stream Research Team, West Antarctica, with the Trans-Antarctic Mountains in the background

Kerry Key, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University

Antarctica hides a huge amount of water below its surface. Researchers have long suspected that there may be groundwater buried under the ice, but so far there is no convincing evidence to support this suspicion.

Within the ice sheet of Antarctica, corridors of relatively fast-moving ice flow into the ocean. “Ice flows are responsible for bringing 90 percent of Antarctica’s ice to its periphery, so they’re really important for understanding how Antarctica’s ice eventually goes to the ocean,” he said. Chloe Gustafson at the University of California, San Diego.

“They’re kind of water slides, because if there’s water at the base of your ice stream, it can go very fast, but if there’s no water, you can’t go very fast,” she said.

Researchers already knew that shallow pools of water – usually millimeters to several meters deep – could sit between icy streams and the ground below. But Gustafson and her colleagues wanted to know if there was a larger reservoir of moving water under the icy Whillans stream in West Antarctica.

By measuring seismic activity and electromagnetic fields, they found a kilometer-thick layer of sediment saturated with a mixture of fresh glacial water and ancient seawater.

It contains more than 10 times more water than the shallower pools under the ice stream, and the water seems to flow between the deep and shallow areas.

The obvious link suggests that groundwater may be important in controlling the flow rate of ice flows, a process that is crucial for understanding to predict the effects of climate change on sea levels.

“Antarctica as a whole, the whole ice sheet, contains [enough water to lead to] rising sea level by about 57 meters, “says Gustafson. “Ultimately, we want to know how quickly this ice will leak from the continent into the ocean and affect this sea level rise.”

Reference in the magazine: science, DOI: 10.1126 / science.abm3301

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