Public Release: 

Warm ocean water is making Antarctic glacier vulnerable to significant melting

Imperial College London

Researchers have discovered a valley underneath East Antarctica's most rapidly-changing glacier that delivers warm water to the base of the ice, causing significant melting.

The intrusion of warm ocean water is accelerating melting and thinning of Totten Glacier's ice shelf, which is around 150 kilometres long and 30 kilometres wide and drains enough ice from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet to raise global sea levels by 3.5 metres. The glacier is one of the major outlets for the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is the largest mass of ice on Earth and covers 98 percent of the continent.

Climate change is raising the temperature of the oceans, and sea levels are predicted to rise about one metre per century. Totten Glacier could represent a major component of this change.

The research is published today (Monday 16 March) in Nature Geoscience by scientists from Imperial College London and institutions in the US, Australia and France.

"It's only one glacier, but it's changing now and it is significant for sea levels globally," said study co-author Professor Martin Siegert, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London. "The 3.5 metre rise may take several centuries to complete, but now the process has started it is likely irreversible. This is another example of how human-induced climate change could be triggering major changes with knock-on impacts that will be felt globally."

The East Antarctic Ice Sheet was previously thought to be surrounded by colder water and so relatively stable compared to the smaller West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is losing more than 150 cubic kilometres of ice each year. However, satellite data have shown that the Totten Glacier has also been thinning considerably. To investigate why, the team of researchers surveyed the area.

Using radar and other geophysical techniques, they obtained a map of the topographical landscape underlying the glacier where it met the sea. Their results revealed a 5 km-wide valley running underneath the glacier capable of letting warm ocean water reach the ice base.

Thin ice at the margins of ice sheets can float on the ocean, but the ice inland is 'grounded' and in contact with the bedrock. The newly-discovered valley allows warm ocean water to flow underneath a region of floating ice, exposing the grounded edge of the ice sheet to the warmth and leading to glacier melting.

Destabilisation of the Totten Glacier could leave more ice inland vulnerable to change, said Professor Siegert: "Once a certain region starts to change, the implications for the connected ice are potentially significant. We are using computer modelling to understand whether changes in Totten Glacier could lead to changes in both adjacent and more distant places in Antarctica. While this work needs to be undertaken, the change at Totten Glacier itself is significant and concerning."

There are still many unknown landscapes beneath the Antarctic ice, and Professor Siegert and his colleagues are planning to map even more remote regions in an effort to understand the dynamics of the continent. These include two 'poles of ignorance' - spots on Antarctica where you can stand and be at least 200km from the nearest data point relating to the continent beneath the ice.


The research was supported in the UK by NERC, and by the US NSF, the Australian Antarctic Division, as well as NASA's Operation IceBridge and the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation.

Co-authors on the study also include D.A. Young and T. G. Richter from The University of Texas at Austin; J. L. Roberts, B. Legresy, R. C. Warner and T. D. van Ommen from University of Tasmania and the Australian Antarctic Division; A. R. A. Aitken from The University of Western Australia; D. M. Schroeder from the California Institute of Technology; M. J. Siegert from Imperial College London and J.S. Greenbaum and D.D. Blankenship from The University of Texas at Austin. Legresy has joint appointments at CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship and CNRS-LEGOS.

For more information, please contact:

Hayley Dunning
Research Media Officer
Imperial College London
Tel: 020 7594 2412
Out of hours duty media officer: 07803 886 248

Notes for editors:

1. "Ocean access to a cavity beneath Totten Glacier in East Antarctica" by J. S. Greenbaum, D. D. ( Blankenship, D. A. Young, T. G. Richter, J. L. Roberts, A. R. A. Aitken, B. Legresy, D. M. Schroeder, R. C.Warner, T. D. van Ommen, and M. J. Siegert is published Monday 16 March 2015 in Nature Geoscience

2. A copy of the paper can be downloaded

3. About Imperial College London

Imperial College London is one of the world's leading universities. The College's 14,000 students and 7,500 staff are expanding the frontiers of knowledge in science, medicine, engineering and business, and translating their discoveries into benefits for society.

Founded in 1907, Imperial builds on a distinguished past - having pioneered penicillin, holography and fibre optics - to shape the future. Imperial researchers work across disciplines to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable energy technology and address security challenges. This blend of academic excellence and its real-world application feeds into Imperial's exceptional learning environment, where students participate in research to push the limits of their degrees.

Imperial nurtures a dynamic enterprise culture, where collaborations with industrial, healthcare and international partners are the norm. In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK's first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible.

Imperial has nine London campuses, including Imperial West: a new 25 acre research and innovation centre in White City, west London. At Imperial West, researchers, businesses and higher education partners will co-locate to create value from ideas on a global scale.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.