NASA Creates First Complete Map Of Antarctica’s Glacial Movements

After sifting through billions of data points and years of painstaking reconstruction, three researchers have made a fundamental discovery about Antarctic glaciers that promises to impact major theories in both glaciology and climate change sciences.

Using an amalgamation of radar observations garnered from European, Japanese and Canadian satellites between 2007 and 2009, researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and the University of California, Irvine stitched together a rough map of Antarctica’s glacial features. They then picked through a mountain of data points to eliminate artifacts like cloud cover and land features that would obscure their view. The result: a map of every glacier on the continent, down to its individual shape and flow velocity, illustrating how water melting in the interior of the continent makes its way out to the coasts. It even includes Eastern Antarctica — an area that, while comprising 77 per cent of the continent’s land mass, was as-of-yet uncharted. That’s some Lewis and Clark shit right there. It’s no Northwest Passage but, according to Eric Rignot, lead author of the study, it’s, “like seeing a map of all the oceans’ currents for the first time. It’s a game changer for glaciology.”

The map has also revealed a number of new features of the Antarctic Continent, including a massive undiscovered East to West mountain ridge and unidentified objects that slide along the antarctic plains up to 244m a year (the glacial equivalent to supersonic flight). Most importantly, researchers discovered that the lowest layers of ice, those right against the ground, themselves slide rather than simply being crushed by the immense weight from above (as was previously assumed). “That’s critical knowledge for predicting future sea level rise. It means that if we lose ice at the coasts from the warming ocean, we open the tap to massive amounts of ice in the interior.” said Thomas Wagner of NASA’s cryospheric program.

That’s pretty bad news for the climate, now instead of having to worry about the entirety of the ice caps melting, we now have to account for losing a much smaller amount–in the form of these ice plugs–before the gooey liquid centre of Antarctica leaks out into the ocean and destroys the salinity balance. Cue the Michael Bay pitches in 3… 2… 1…

[NASA, Wired, ScienceMag]

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