Climate scientists have warned that ice shelves which encircle the frozen continent of Antarctica are showing signs of fracturing, which could have huge implications for the rising sea levels. Fractures in the surface of the ice shelves, which usually remain frozen all year round, are making them vulnerable to collapse.
Research from the University of Edinburgh and international institutions has revealed that the ice shelves act as a crucial barrier from preventing glaciers moving from land to sea.
However, up to 60 percent of these ice shelves are now vulnerable thanks to the warming planet, and their sudden failure could have “huge implications for sea level”.
Satellite observations show large fractures crop up regularly, and if they fill up with meltwater, they can break away from the land with ease.
The study suggested more than 350,000 square miles of floating ice shelves could split if the fractures completely break.
To put that into perspective, the UK is 93,630 square miles.
As a result, if these ice shelves were to break away, which could happen quickly according to the researchers, sea levels could rise by one metre.
University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences’ Dr Martin Wearing said: “We’ve seen in the past that the sudden collapse of ice shelves can trigger rapid acceleration of the glaciers that flow into them, and, in turn, sea-level rise.
“We have found that stresses within vast sections of Antarctica’s ice shelves are sufficiently large that they could collapse if, as climate models predict, surface melting increases substantially in coming years.
“We hope our use of machine learning is a first step towards further applications of AI (artificial intelligence) in the analysis of the ever-growing quantity of data from the polar regions.”
Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s Jonathan Kingslake said: “The ice shelves – that’s the weak spot, where the atmosphere, the ice and ocean interact.
“If they fill up with meltwater, things can happen very quickly after that, and there could be major consequences for sea levels.”
The University of Edinburgh said melting water seeping into these ice shelf cracks will “increase significantly in the future unless major steps are taken to tackle climate change.
“The collapse of Antarctica’s ice shelves could impact millions of people living in low-lying communities around the world, the team says.”
The University of Edinburgh added: “A team involving Edinburgh geoscientists identified areas at risk from a process called hydrofracturing.
“Their model was validated using a fracture map created by using AI and machine learning to analyse satellite images of Antarctica.
“The findings show that around 60 per cent of the ice-shelf area that buttresses the ice sheet is vulnerable.
“The weight of water from increased surface melting could enlarge fractures in these sections of ice, putting them at risk of collapse.”