In order to see what the future of East Antarctica may be like, all one needs to do is to look at the Arctic right now.
The level of ice cover – on both sea and land – in the Arctic is now dropping to such consistently low extents that a phenomenon known as Arctic Amplification is taking effect. Ice helps to reflect incoming solar radiation back into space. Less ice means more radiation makes it through to water, which absorbs it and stores it as heat for considerably long periods of time.
This melts the ice around it, creating more meltwater, and warming the Arctic even faster… and so on. This partly explains why the Arctic is warming at least twice as fast as almost anywhere else on the planet, and why the blue lakes emerging in the East Antarctic have been around in Greenland for far longer.
Could the lakes in East Antarctica mark the start of an “Antarctic Amplification” effect? Perhaps, but that’s not all.
These pools eventually erode deep into the ice, sometimes reaching the underlying bedrock and joining up with hidden networks of rivers. These vortex-like flows of briny, warm water lubricate the base of the ice sheets, causing them to flow faster. More often than not, they flow towards the sea. Ultimately, when these margins collapse away, it will leave the previously intact core unprotected from global warming.
A recent study mapping its thawing underbelly revealed that the margins of the Greenland Ice Sheet are becoming rapidly unstable, and its top-level blue briny lakes are only serving to exacerbate this. There’s no evidence yet to suggest that this is happening in the Antarctic, but if Greenland is anything to go by, there’s a good chance that it will – and there’s far more ice on the former waiting to slip into the sea than there is on the latter.
Global temperature anomalies between 2000 and 2009. Clearly, the Arctic experienced more anomalous warm days than almost anywhere else on the planet. Is East Antarctica about to follow suit?NASA