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 pro 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.
The team found that over the 13-year period they studied, the warmest (Southern Hemisphere) summer was between 2012 and 2013, with a total of 37 "positive degree days", and a mean daily surface air temperature of 0.8 degrees Celsius in January.
During this 2012/2013 summer, Langhovde’s glacier surface experienced 36 percent more new lakes and surface channels overspilling than ever before.
The researchers aren't ready to call this the beginning of the end of the East Antarctic ice sheet just yet, saying that if things stayed as they are, we wouldn't have much to worry about.