Antarctica's France-Sized Ice Shelf Makes Daily Jumps, Raising Icequake Concerns

News Excerpt: 

Potential acceleration and eventual disintegration of the Ross Ice Shelf, leading to its movement into the sea, would have far-reaching consequences.

  • The Ross Ice Shelf is the largest ice shelf of Antarctica. It is several hundred meters thick.

More about the News:

  • Researchers have uncovered a surprising phenomenon in Antarctica: the massive Ross Ice Shelf, roughly the size of France, lurches forward several centimeters once or twice a day. 
    • This movement is triggered by the Whillans Ice Stream, a fast-flowing river of ice that occasionally gets stuck and then surges ahead.
  • The discovery highlights a previously unknown aspect of ice shelf dynamics and raises questions about the long-term stability of the Ross Ice Shelf in the face of climate change.

Sudden Shifts, Not Gradual Flow

  • Unlike most glaciers that creep at a glacial pace, the Whillans Ice Stream exhibits a stop-and-go motion. 
    • A lack of water lubrication beneath the stream may be causing it to intermittently stick, then release built-up pressure in sudden bursts.
    • These jolts, similar to tremors along earthquake faults, push against the Ross Ice Shelf.

Icequakes and Fractures: A Potential Threat

  • While the daily jumps aren't directly linked to human-caused warming, They could contribute to the weakening of the Ross Ice Shelf.
    • Ice shelves act as barriers, slowing the flow of glaciers and ice streams into the ocean.
      • If the Ross Ice Shelf weakens and breaks apart, it could accelerate ice melt rates and sea level rise.

Scientists are monitoring the situation closely

  • The research team emphasizes that icequakes and fractures are natural occurrences on ice shelves. 
    • However, they will be closely monitoring the Ross Ice Shelf for signs of disintegration, 
      • Similar to what has happened to smaller ice shelves in the past.
  • This new study highlights the complex and dynamic nature of Antarctic ice shelves and the need for continued research to understand their future under a changing climate.

Whillans Ice Stream, 

  • Whillans Ice Stream,is a moving belt of ice in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet that deposits ice onto the massive Ross Ice Shelf
  • Whillans Ice Stream is approximately 2,600–3,000 feet (792–914 metres) thick and about 50–60 miles (80.5–96.5 km) wide. 
  • Whillans Ice Stream exploration has provided basic insight into ice-stream mechanics, such as the role of ice-stream margins in determining the speed of ice flow. 
  • It was of particular interest to researchers, because of its subglacial lakes and dynamic properties as well as rising concerns about the effects of climate change on ice in the Antarctic.

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