Scientists Confirm World's Largest Ice Sheet Is Melting Rapidly From Below


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

Warm seawater is undercutting Totten and melting it from below. Zhukova Valentyna/Shutterstock

Totten is one of the largest glaciers within the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS), the most voluminous single mass of ice in the world – and because it’s 2016 and everything is awful, scientists have just confirmed that it’s melting insanely fast from below.

Reporting in the journal Science Advances, the international team note that unusually warm oceanic water is flooding into the glacier’s undercut base at a rate of 220,000 cubic meters per second (4.6 cubic miles per day). That’s enough to cause Totten to shed up to 73 billion tonnes (80 billion tons) of ice per year.


Melting glaciers like Totten directly contribute to sea level rise. Worse, by destroying those near the edge of the continent, masses of ice dammed up behind them are free to flow into the sea.

The icy catchment area of Totten and the EAIS is about the size of Spain. If all of this fell into the ocean, global sea level rise would jump up by 3.5 meters (11.5 feet).

content-1482155007-bloop-2.jpgThe team, led by the University of Tasmania and the University of Texas at Austin, managed to gather this data by piloting their research vessel into one of the crevasses carved out by the sea. By sneaking in beneath Totten, they were able to see the extent of the erosion in real-time for the very first time.

Like many of Greenland’s glaciers, Totten is being eroded from below by increasingly warm and acidic seawater, which in turn is directly linked to our frenetic flux of greenhouse gas emissions into the oceans. Warm water will always erode away glaciers, but there are certain structural configurations that make it all the more likely the whole icy structure will come tumbling down.


Totten is rooted deep below sea level, resting on the relatively solid bedrock. At certain points, this bedrock is flat, but at others it slopes quite dramatically. If the glacier’s underbelly is eroded back to a point wherein it is resting solely on a sloping region, it will begin to move at unprecedented speeds.

As recent research has revealed, a sloping zone can be found in the glacier’s current mid-region. The last time the glacier was balanced at this tipping point was about 3.5 million years ago. Back then, the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were around 400 parts per million, identical to those found today.

So this is all genuinely terrible news. This enormous glacier is disintegrating, and could imminently begin its inexorable, irreversible collapse into the sea – and the world’s only superpower will, come January 20, think that climate change is a hoax. Hurrah!

It’s alright. Just look at this video of an orphaned baby pygmy marmoset getting massaged with a toothbrush and you’ll feel a lot better.


Image in text: Analyzing the seawater off Totten Glacier. Steve Rintoul/Australian Antarctic Division

[H/T: Washington Post]


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