Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Hidden gateways undermine East Antarctica’s largest glacier

East Antarctic ice sheet East Antarctic ice sheet NASA
18 Mar
2015
Researchers at the University of Texas have uncovered two gateways on the sea floor that allow warm ocean water to reach the base of the Totten Glacier, speeding up its thinning process

The Totten Glacier is East Antarctica’s largest and most rapidly thinning glacier. Deep, warm water has been observed seaward of the glacier before, but up to now there was no evidence that it could compromise coastal ice.

‘We now know there are avenues for the warmest waters in East Antarctica to access the most sensitive areas of Totten Glacier,’ says lead author Jamin Greenbaum.

The result is significant because the ice flowing through Totten Glacier alone is sufficient to raise global sea level by at least 11 feet, equivalent to the contribution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet if it were to completely collapse.

‘The ocean is melting ice in an area of the glacier that we thought was totally cut off before,’ says Greenbaum, adding that ‘knowing this now will improve predictions of ice melt and the timing of future glacier retreat.’

earth20150316cThe Totten Glacier mapped (Image: NASA/JPL)

Given that previous work has shown that the basin has drained its ice to the ocean and filled again many times in the past, this study uncovers a means for how that process may be starting again.

‘We’ve basically shown that the submarine basins of East Antarctica have similar configurations and coastal vulnerabilities to the submarine basins of West Antarctica that we’re so worried about, and that warm ocean water, which is having a huge impact in West Antarctica, is affecting East Antarctica, as well,’  says researcher Donald Blankenship.

The deeper of the two gateways identified in the study is a three-mile-wide seafloor valley extending from the ocean to beneath Totten Glacier in an area not previously known to be floating. Identifying the valley was unexpected because satellite analyses conducted by other teams had indicated the ice above it was resting on solid ground.

Read the research in Nature

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe to Geographical!

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The green dragon awakens
    China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Oceans

With the war against plastic gaining publicity and popularity, one…

Wildlife

India’s booming domestic dog population is attacking some of the…

Energy

Soaring sales of air conditioning units over the next thirty…

Climate

Well-meaning promises and actions don't always have the best outcomes.…

Geophoto

With the days at their longest and more light in…

Oceans

Tourism might be an economic pillar for many countries surrounding…

Wildlife

Brain sizes directly shown to correlate to survival rates among…

Wildlife

Celebrated author Professor Tim Birkhead provides a fascinating insight into…

Oceans

The world’s most biodiverse seagrass region – Indonesia’s Coral Triangle…

Oceans

Ocean conservation group urges world governments to step up action…

Climate

As climate conditions at the 100th meridian, the traditional United…

Climate

International shipping may be attempting to reduce its carbon footprint, but…

Geophoto

So much photographic theory is dedicated to image sharpness that…

Wildlife

Changing temperatures in East Africa are set to upset a delicate…

Climate

As the planet warms and tensions rise, Marco Magrini finds that…

Oceans

A deep-sea mission in the ocean around Bermuda confirms the…

Oceans

An oxygen-deprived ‘dead zone’ in the Arabian Sea is much…

Wildlife

Scientists working with new drone technology are hoping to reveal…

Oceans

A new virtual reality experience, ‘BBC Earth: Life in VR’,…

Nature

Faced with protecting a country more than 30 times the…