Tuesday, October 20, 2009

West Antarctic ice sheet may not be dwindling as fast as once thought

University of Texas at Austin: New ground measurements made by the West Antarctic GPS Network (WAGN) project, composed of researchers from The University of Texas at Austin, The Ohio State University, and The University of Memphis, suggest the rate of ice loss of the West Antarctic ice sheet has been slightly overestimated.

"Our work suggests that while West Antarctica is still losing significant amounts of ice, the loss appears to be slightly slower than some recent estimates," said Ian Dalziel, lead principal investigator for WAGN. "So the take home message is that Antarctica is contributing to rising sea levels. It is the rate that is unclear."

In 2006, another team of researchers used data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites to infer a significant loss of ice mass over West Antarctica from 2002 to 2005. The GRACE satellites do not measure changes in ice loss directly but measure changes in gravity, which can be caused both by ice loss and vertical uplift of the bedrock underlying the ice.

Now, for the first time, researchers have directly measured the vertical motion of the bedrock at sites across West Antarctica using the Global Positioning System (GPS). The results should lead to more accurate estimates of ice mass loss.

Antarctica was once buried under a deeper and more extensive layer of ice during a period known as the Last Glacial Maximum. Starting about 20,000 years ago, the ice began slowly thinning and retreating. As the ice mass decreases, the bedrock immediately below the ice rises, an uplift known as postglacial rebound.

Postglacial rebound causes an increase in the gravitational attraction measured by the GRACE satellites and could explain their inferred measurements of recent, rapid ice loss in West Antarctica. The new GPS measurements show West Antarctica is rebounding more slowly than once thought. This means that the correction to the gravity signal from the rock contribution has been overestimated and the rate of ice loss is slower than previously interpreted…..

West Antarctic ice streams are lettered A-E. Red areas are fast-moving central ice streams. Blue areas show slower tributaries feeding the ice streams. Green areas depict slow-moving, stable areas. Thick black lines outline areas that collect snowfall to feed their respective ice streams. A. Mercer Ice Stream, B. Whillans Ice Stream, C. Kamb Ice Stream, D. Bindschadler Ice Stream, E. MacAyeal Ice Stream. NASA

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