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Measuring the irreversible retreat of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

25 June 2014

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Glacial retreat on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has been a matter of scientific interest for decades and holds serious implications for sea level rise, but difficulties involved in conducting research in this inaccessible location limited early investigation. As remote sensing improved, so too did the capacity to observe glacial patterns on the Antarctic continent.

Now, a new study from NASA and the University of California, Irvine combines 40 years' worth of ground, aerial and satellite radar observations.

The paper, "Widespread, rapid grounding line retreat of Pine Island, Thwaites, Smith and Kohler glaciers, West Antarctica from 1992 to 2011," was published by Geophysical Research Letters. It concludes that observational evidence indicates that a large area of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has entered a state of irreversible retreat. Lead author Eric Rignot says, "It has passed a point of no return."

Since the 1970s, glaciologists have identified the West Antarctic Ice Sheet as a weak spot on the continent, likely to be susceptible to changes in climate. Many of the changes that have taken place are visible on the surface of the ice, allowing this 40-year data record to provide a valuable snapshot of change. As radar technologies improved, the satellite data were augmented with ground and aerial measurements.

Source: Earthzine

Image credit: Ben Holt Sr. / NASA - Antarctica

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