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Melting Glaciers in Antarctica

April 30th, 2009 Category: Climate Change

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Close-up

Close-up

In the full image, glaciers and ice streams can be seen south of the Kemp Peninsula, in Palmer Land on the eastern coast of the Antarctica Peninsula. The close-up shows icebergs breaking off the glacier.

Glaciers in Antarctica are melting faster and across a much wider area than previously thought, scientists say, a development that threatens to raise sea levels worldwide and force millions of people to flee low-lying areas, reports USA Today.

Researchers once believed that the melting was limited to areas like the one visible here on the Antarctic Peninsula, a narrow tongue of land pointing toward South America. However, satellite data and automated weather stations now indicate it is more widespread, even extending all the way down to west Antarctica near the South Pole.

By the end of the century, the accelerated melting could cause sea levels to climb by 3 to 5 feet — levels substantially higher than predicted by a major scientific group just two years ago.

Making matters worse, scientists said, ice shelves, such as the Wilkins Ice Shelf, that hold the glaciers back from the sea are also weakening.

The biggest of the western glaciers, the Pine Island Glacier, is moving 40% faster than it was in the 1970s, discharging water and ice more rapidly into the ocean. The Smith Glacier, also in west Antarctica, is moving 83% faster than in 1992.

The glaciers are slipping into the sea faster because the floating ice shelf that would normally stop them, which is usually 650 to 980 feet thick, is melting. Together, all the glaciers in west Antarctica are losing a total of around 114 billion tons per year because the melting is much greater than the new snowfall.

The glaciers’ discharge is making a significant contribution to increasing sea levels. Some people fear that this is the first signs of a collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet, which would cause a sea level rise of between 1 and 1.5 meters (about 3.5 to 5 feet).

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