Scientists track rapid retreat of Antarctic glacier

Scientists are warning that apparently stable glaciers in the Antarctic can “switch very rapidly” and lose large quantities of ice as a result of warmer seas.

Their finding comes after a research team led by Benjamin Wallis, a glaciologist at the University of Leeds, used satellites to track the Cadman Glacier, which drains into Beascochea Bay, on the west Antarctic peninsula.

Between November 2018 and May 2021, the glacier retreated eight kilometres as the ice shelf at the end of the glacier – where ice extends into the sea and is anchored on the sea floor – disappeared.  

A picture from a satellite shows the end of a glacier as it enters the sea. The image on the left was taken in February 2017. There is an image taken from the same spot six years later. It shows the end of the glacier, with much of the ice shelf gone.

Image: Cadman Glacier before and after the collapse of the ice shelf. The image on the left was taken in 2017 and shows the ice shelf. An image taken in 2023, on the right, shows the loss of the ice shelf.

Picture credit: European Commission, European Space Agency, Copernicus Sentinel-2 Data, Benjamin Wallis.

The ice shelf became ungrounded

The ice shelf would have acted as a buttress, slowing the movement of the glacier towards the sea.

Surrounded by warmer ocean waters, the scientists believe the ice shelf thinned, became ungrounded and was no longer able to hold back the glacier.   

As a result, the speed at which the glacier was flowing accelerated to double its speed. This increased the amount of ice it discharged into the sea as icebergs, through the process of iceberg calving.   

Wallis said: “We were surprised to see the speed at which Cadman went from being an apparently stable glacier to one where we see sudden deterioration and significant ice loss.

“What was also curious was that the neighbouring glaciers on this part of the west Antarctic Peninsula did not react in the same way, which may hold important lessons for the way we can better project how climate change will continue to affect this important and sensitive polar region.

“Our study brought together data from three decades, nine different satellite missions and in-situ oceanographic measurements to understand the changes happening in Antarctica. This demonstrates how important it is to have long-term monitoring of the Earth’s polar regions with a range of sensors which all tell us a different piece of the story.”  

According to the scientists, the Cadman Glacier is now in a state of “substantial dynamic imbalance”. The ice on the glacier has continued to thin, with elevation being lost at a rate of around 20 metres a year.  

Around 2.16 billion tonnes of ice are draining from the Cadman Glacier into the ocean each year.  

The researchers have published their analysis, ‘Ocean warming drives rapid dynamic activation of marine-terminating glacier on the west Antarctic Peninsula,’ in the scientific journal Nature Communications.   

Why the Cadman Glacier became so unstable   

Unusually high ocean water temperatures in early 2018 to 2019 around the west Antarctic peninsula are believed to have triggered the rapid dynamic change in the Cadman Glacier system.   

By analysing historic satellite data, the scientists believe warmer ocean waters gradually thinned the glacier’s ice shelf from the early 2000s and possibly since the 1970s.   

The warmer water was not carried on the surface of the ocean but deep in the water column. This warmer water may have reached the ice shelf where it is grounded on the sea floor. The result is the ice shelf begins to melt from the bottom up.    

In 2018 and 2019, the ice shelf was so thin that it broke free from the grounding zone and started to float, in effect slipping anchor and enabling the Cadman Glacier to drain more ice into the seas.   

The scientific team still faced one big question. Why had the Cadman Glacier collapsed when the neighbouring Funk and Lever Glaciers remained relatively stable?  

Subsea ridges protect some glaciers  

By analysing subsea oceanographic data, they believe a series of subsea rock structures called ridges or sills, at a depth of 200 metres and 230 metres, act as a defensive barrier, deflecting channels of warmer water from reaching the glaciers.

They warn that a rise in ocean warming could compromise the ability of the ridges to protect some glaciers.   

Professor Michael Meredith, from the British Antarctic Survey and one of the authors of the paper, said: “We have known for some time that the ocean around Antarctica is heating up rapidly and that this poses a significant threat to glaciers and the ice sheet, with consequences for sea level rise globally.

“What this new research shows is that apparently stable glaciers can switch very rapidly, becoming unstable almost without warning and then thinning and retreating very strongly. This emphasises the need for a comprehensive ocean observing network around Antarctica, especially in regions close to glaciers that are especially hard to make measurements.”

Writing in the paper, the researchers say what has happened to the Cadman Glacier can be seen as an example of a “glaciological tipping point”, where a system in a steady state can take one or two paths based on a change in an environmental parameter.   

A tipping point was reached in 2018 caused by the arrival of unusually warm ocean water, which caused the ice shelf to unground. Reaching this tipping point caused the Cadman Glacier to increase its ice discharge by 28% in 13 months.   

The researchers say other glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula may be vulnerable to similar sudden changes because of subsea geology. 

The paper – Ocean warming drives rapid dynamic activation of marine-terminating glacier on the west Antarctic Peninsula – can be downloaded from the Nature Communications website.

Further information  

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Top image: The mountainous and icy coastline of the Antarctic Peninsula. Credit: Professor Anna Hogg