While studying the Vavilov ice cap on the on the northern fringe of Siberia in the Arctic Circle, geologists have observed the rapid ice loss from an improbable new river of ice for the first time.
The researchers, from Cornell University, originally thought they were seeing a glacial surge, a temporary condition in which snow buildup ebbs and flows over long time scales. But the area has lost nearly 9.5 billion tons of ice since 2015, equating to 11% of its mass, and the glacial surge has grown faster, wider and has fanned out more.
This is the first documented case of an ice stream being formed. We really didn’t expect to see this,” said lead author Whyjay Zheng. “In the satellite images, it seems like the entire west wing of the ice cap is just dumping into the sea. No one has ever seen this before.”
After approximately six years of examination, the stream resembles a triangular-shaped fan, bordered by dark-shaded crevasses. At the wide centre channel, the stream ice flows at a relatively high speed – around three miles per year. Until the discovery of this ice stream, the only other places where scientists had seen ice streams were in Antarctica and Greenland.
“This glacier went from doing basically nothing to doing something very unusual – evolving into an ice stream,” said Matthew Pritchard, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and a fellow at the Cornell Atkinson Centre for Sustainability. “The Vavilov ice cap is not a place where warming has hit very hard. Yet we’re still seeing this change. It’s a new river of ice we’re trying to understand.”
The link between this ice stream and global warming has been described as ‘hard to ignore’. Once the frozen support collapses due to erosion by warmer waters, ice streams can form, which allows the ice to flow into the ocean in a surprisingly short time.
“This is offering scientists another clue as to what happens during global warming. Now once the ice is lost, it is lost,” added Zheng. “Suddenly, we have more water in the oceans.”
To read the full paper, ‘The Possible Transition From Glacial Surge to Ice Stream on Vavilov Ice Cap’, click here.
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