Researchers have found streams of water running across Antarctica, even in the perpetual deep freeze near the South Pole — a discovery that could be trouble for some of the ice shelves on the continent’s rim.
Explorers have reported pools of liquid water as far back Ernest Shackleton’s 1909 expedition to Antarctica. But by compiling aircraft and satellite photos dating back to the 1940s, researchers at Columbia University in New York and Britain’s Sheffield University have found melted ice flowing in channels as far as 85 degrees south.
“What is really surprising is that there is actually enough of those pockets of water, and melting actually occurs often enough, that these large drainage systems can be maintained,” said Jonathan Kingslake, a Columbia glaciologist who led the study. “They’re not only small pockets of water, but there’s streams moving that water up to 70 kilometers.”
The researchers detailed their findings in a pair of papers in the journal Nature.
Average temperatures in the Antarctic interior run more than 50 degrees below zero Celsius (-70 degrees Fahrenheit). But patches of rock that stick up above the ice sheets absorb the sun’s rays, melting the surrounding ice and starting that water flowing downhill, the researchers found. So-called blue ice, which reflects less sunlight than the surrounding snow, can also start to melt.
That water starts flowing into a network of hundreds of streams, eventually collecting in pools that can stretch as long as 80 kilometers (50 miles). And that water can damage the ice shelves that fringe Antarctica, deepening crevasses and weakening those structures. “The water collects in ponds and basically acts like a jackhammer,” said Robin Bell, another glaciologist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.