Robots Roaming in Antarctic Waters Reveal Why Ross Ice Shelf Melts Rapidly in Summer

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(The front of the Ross Ice Shelf, as seen from a ski-equipped NY ANG LC-130. Credit: David Porter, LDEO)

Robots Roaming in Antarctic Waters Reveal Why Ross Ice Shelf Melts Rapidly in Summer

A new paper offers fresh insight into the forces causing the world’s largest ice shelf to melt.

The Ross Ice Shelf, a part of the Antarctic Ice Sheet that is floating on the ocean, measures several hundred meters thick and sits over 480,000 square kilometers, approximately the size of Spain. Its magnitude, and the fact that thinning of the ice shelf will speed up the flow of Antarctica’s ice sheets into the ocean, mean that it carries significant sea level rise potential if it were to melt. Melting ice shelves like the Ross could cause seas to rise by several feet over the next few centuries.

A study just published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans helps to reveal the local factors that influence the Ross Ice Shelf’s stability, refining predictions of how it will change and influence sea rise in the future.

Prior studies on ice shelf melt have focused on warming global waters. Yet three years of Rosetta data show that the Ross Ice Shelf is melting due to local surface waters, and that the melt is happening on an unanticipated part of the shelf. These discoveries were released in a Rosetta paper published in May; the new study details the source of this strange activity.

The study comes out of the Rosetta-Ice project, a three-year-long collection of geologic, oceanographic, and glaciological data in Antarctica. The project is immense in scope, involving a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary team with specialized instrumentation to collect first-of-its kind Antarctic data.

excerpt from Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog post by Nicole DeRoberts