Coldest part of Antarctica more vulnerable to climate change than thought

Summary

Researchers from KU Leuven are part of a team that has determined that the East Antarctic ice sheet is in fact melting

Lake has formed

The East Antarctic ice sheet, considered the coldest part of the South Pole, is more vulnerable to climate change than was once thought, according to a discovery by researchers at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) and the Dutch universities of Utrecht and Delft.

Because East Antarctica is so isolated, little is known about the effects of climate change there. Through field work, satellite data and a climate model, the researchers found that ice shelves in a certain area of East Antarctica are melting faster than scientists had assumed.

That’s because a strong wind is transporting warm, dry air to the area and blowing away the snow. This darkens the surface, which then absorbs more of the sun’s heat.

The result is a local warmer microclimate with a few “hotspots”. The ice shelf is floating in the ocean, so melting does not immediately contribute to a rise in sea levels.

However, the ice shelves around Antarctica are extremely important for ice sheet stability because they hold back the land ice. If the ice shelves collapse, this land ice will end up in the ocean and cause sea levels to rise more quickly.

Part of the research focused on a mysterious crater on the King Boudewijn ice shelf, first discovered two years ago. There were theories that it might have been caused by a meteorite impact, but it turned out to be a collapsed lake, with a hole in the ice that allows water to flow into the ocean.

The researchers discoveries are featured on the cover of this week’s Nature science journal.

Photo: Jason Auch/Wikimedia Commons

Princess Elisabeth station in Antarctica

The Princess Elisabeth Polar Science Station at the South Pole is the only station at altitude in Antarctica. It was developed and built by the Brussels-based International Polar Foundation with the aim of supporting research in East Antarctica.
Launch - Commissioned by the Belgian government, the station was founded as a legacy project of the 2007-2008 International Polar Year.
Renewable - The station is the world’s first polar research facility to be designed and built to operate entirely on renewable energies.
Gateway - The station offers a research gateway to the Sør Rondane Mountains, glaciers and the Antarctic Plateau so that scientists don’t need to travel far into the Antarctic wilderness to conduct their research.
9

station wind turbines

1 382

station altitude in meters

220

location from the coast in kilometres