Research Press Release

Climate: Antarctic ice shelves at risk of melt-induced hydrofracture

Nature

August 27, 2020

Approximately sixty per cent of Antarctic ice shelves may be vulnerable to melt-induced fracturing, suggests a paper published in Nature. The findings suggest this process could accelerate Antarctic ice-sheet loss as atmospheric warming increases.

Antarctica’s ice shelves are floating extensions of ice sheets that can help slow the flow of ice into the ocean through a process known as buttressing. When these ice shelves collapse, accelerated ice-sheet loss and sea-level rise may occur. Hydrofracture, where meltwater enters and expands fractures in the ice, has been linked to ice-shelf collapse. However, the extent of possible hydrofracturing across Antarctic ice shelves is not well understood.

Ching-Yao Lai and colleagues used a combination of remote satellite sensing, theoretical modelling and a deep learning method to map surface fractures across Antarctica and to predict where they may become unstable if filled with meltwater. The authors identified that approximately sixty per cent of ice shelves both buttress upstream ice and also are susceptible to hydrofracture. The authors suggest that an increase in surface meltwater could lead to hydrofracture in these areas.

doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2627-8

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