Science Seasonal change in Antarctic ice sheet movement observed for first time

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Some estimates of Antarctica's total contribution to sea-level rise may be over- or underestimated, after researchers detected a previously unknown source of ice loss variability.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge and Austrian engineering company ENVEO, identified distinct, seasonal movements in the flow of land-based ice draining into George VI Ice Shelf—a floating platform of ice roughly the size of Wales—on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Using imagery from the Copernicus/European Space Agency Sentinel-1 satellites, the researchers found that the glaciers feeding the ice shelf speed up by approximately 15% during the Antarctic summer. This is the first time that such seasonal cycles have been detected on land ice flowing into ice shelves in Antarctica. The results are reported in the journal The Cryosphere.

While it is not unusual for ice flow in Arctic and Alpine regions to speed up during summer, scientists had previously assumed that ice in Antarctica was not subject to the same seasonal movements, especially where it flows into large ice shelves and where temperatures are below freezing for most of the year.

This assumption was also, in part, fuelled by a lack of imagery collected over the icy continent in the past. "Unlike the Greenland Ice Sheet, where a high quantity of data has allowed us to understand how the ice moves from season to season and year to year, we haven't had comparable data coverage to look for such changes over Antarctica until recently," said Karla Boxall from Cambridge's Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI), the study's first author.

 
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