Satellite imagery has revealed that two of the fastest-changing glaciers in Antarctica are fracturing and weakening faster than ever—the first step towards the glaciers disintegrating and causing sea levels to rise dramatically.
Using observations from ESA, NASA and USGS satellites, the researchers explored the Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment: two of the most dynamic glaciers on the Antarctic continent, and those responsible for a substantial 5% of global sea level rise.
Together, the two glaciers form an area of flowing ice the size of Norway, and hold enough water to raise global sea levels by over a meter. Both have distinctly changed in morphology in recent decades along with changing atmospheric and oceanic conditions, with the warming oceans causing ice shelves to melt, thin, and retreat.
Predicting how these vital glaciers will evolve in coming years is critical to understand the future of our seas and our warming planet—but such predictions have remained uncertain, with computer models unable to fully account for the glaciers’ processes and properties in their projections.
“To reveal what’s really going on at Pine Island and Thwaites, we dug into imaging data from a number of different satellites,” says Stef Lhermitte of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and lead author of the new study.