Unlike the Arctic Ice Shelf, which saw a rapid decline during last few decades, the Antarctic Ice Shelf was considered as stable, without any major ice meltdowns. This soon could change, as the Pine Island Glacier was found to be breaking inside out.

pine-island-glacier
Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

The Pine Island glacier is a highly important glacier in Antarctica, located in West Antarctica. New findings, published in Geophysical Research Letters, suggest that the ocean is pushing the ice, melting it from inside out. The glacier is about the size of Texas, and its meltdown could lead to massive floods hitting coastlines around the world.

The author of the study, Ian Howat, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University, said that the crack is accelerating. “It’s showing a new weakness in the ice shelf, and it’s showing the weakness may be extending far up the glacier,” he said, also noting “That’s the alarming thing from our standpoint.”

The ice covering the southern continent is eroding faster and faster, thanks to the higher ocean temperatures. As the ice shrinks, the ice sheet becomes more susceptible to warm ocean water erosion, increasing the amount of ice flowing into the ocean. It seems that, in the future, the ice will retreat faster and faster. AS Howat said recent finding “Gives us a mechanism for even faster retreat in the future. Before, we used to have a slow retreat at the edges of the ice shelf. The ocean had to nibble away at it on the edges. This allows the ice shelf to break apart way further inland from the inside out.”

The latest Pine Island glacier retreat is farther inland than any glacier retreat scientist previously observed. Howat also stated that “This kind of rifting behavior provides another mechanism for rapid retreat of these glaciers, adding to the probability that we may see a significant collapse of West Antarctica in our lifetimes.”

During the testing of new imaging software, scientists from the Ohio State University noticed a strange activity in the huge (225-square-mile) iceberg that landed in the ocean during July and August 2015; the consequence of a rift forming at the base of the ice shelf which Pine Island glacier is a part of. The said ice shelf binds the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The findings correlate with two recent studies, published this October (one from the University of California, the other from NASA), which also found that the West Antarctic Ice Shelf is undergoing a massive meltdown.

Similar rifts have already been observed in Greenland, with Greenland Ice Sheet melting because of the warm ocean water flowing underneath it, causing it to melt.

Antarctica holds more than half of Earth’s frozen water, and the melting of the ice located in Antarctica can have serious consequences on coastal cities around the globe in the future.