Scientists have confirmed that thousands of pristine blue lakes have appeared on the ice sheets of East Antarctica, and it’s got them very worried.
The problem? They’ve seen this kind of thing happen before. Greenland’s ice sheet has been disintegrating rapidly, losing a whopping 1 trillion tonnes of ice between 2011 and 2014, and research suggests it’s because of these lakes.
A team of UK researchers has analysed hundreds of satellite images and meteorological data taken of the Langhovde Glacier in East Antarctica, and found for the first time that between 2000 and 2013, nearly 8,000 of these lakes had formed.
Some of these formations, known as supraglacial - or meltwater - lakes, appear to be draining into the floating ice below, which could have serious consequences for the stability of the entire ice shelf.
Ice shelves are thick, floating slabs of ice that form where a glacier or masses of ice flow down a coastline, whereas an ice sheet is a massive chunk of glacier ice covering an area of land greater than 50,000 square kilometres (20,000 square miles).
What’s strange about this news is the fact that researchers had assumed that East Antarctica was fairly impervious to rising climate and ocean temperatures, and have instead been focussing their efforts on investigating the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Antarctic Peninsula is the northernmost part of the mainland of Antarctica, and has shown signs of rapid atmospheric and ocean warming in recent years.
The disintegration of the East Antarctic ice sheet, on the other hand, has been more subtle, and now researchers are concerned that our lack of knowledge on how supraglacial lakes are affecting it will impact our ability to predict the consequences.