Antarctica as it would appear from space. Image Credit: NASA

Rocks under Antarctica’s ice sheet reveal a surprising past

As Earth continues to grapple with alarming climate change effects, scientists have been tirelessly studying the icy expanses of Antarctica, a region vital in deciphering our planet's climatic future. Now, a riveting breakthrough from a remote corner of the continent is rewriting what we thought we knew about its icy past. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, currently in a state of rapid retreat, is revealing surprising secrets from beneath its frosty façade.


Intriguing Findings Under Antarctic Ice Reveal Glacier’s Unexpected Past

Recent research highlights the unexpected history of the retreating West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Contrary to current trends, the region’s glaciers, including Thwaites, were thinner thousands of years ago, according to a study by the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC).

Unraveling the Paradox of Rising Sea Levels

The escalating threat of flooding to millions of people in low-lying coastal regions worldwide due to rising sea levels is undeniable. The most substantial uncertainty in future sea-level predictions stems from melting Antarctic ice. Thwaites Glacier, along with its neighboring glaciers, significantly contributes to this phenomenon.

Beyond Satellites: A Geological Insight into Glacier Behavior in Antarctica

Scientists must understand their long-term behavior under various climatic conditions to predict the future responses of glaciers to expected climate changes. Jonathan Adams, a co-author of the study, asserts that rocks beneath the ice surface provide crucial insights about the history and future of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. However, conventional methods like satellite observations offer limited data.


A Peek Beneath Antarctica Ice: Discovering the Unknown

Utilizing specially designed drills, the ITGC team obtained rock samples from beneath the ice sheet adjacent to Thwaites Glacier. By analyzing specific atoms in these rocks, the researchers identified periods when the ice sheet was smaller than it is today.

Keir Nichols, a leading glacial geologist, expresses excitement about this breakthrough. He appreciates the combined effort of fieldwork in remote Antarctica and laboratory analysis in yielding successful results despite initial uncertainties.

Unexpected Insights and Future Implications

The scientists found that the ice near Thwaites Glacier was at least 35 meters thinner 5000 years ago than today. According to their models, the glacier’s regrowth to its current size took over 3000 years. This finding indicates the possibility of reversing ice sheet retreat in the region. The task ahead, however, is to determine the conditions that would enable this reversal.


Time Against Us: The Long Road to Glacier Recovery

Joanne Johnson, a geologist at BAS and co-author of the study, warns that while the possibility of glacier recovery may seem optimistic, the reality is daunting. She cautions that if the goal is to mitigate the impacts of sea level rise caused by the retreating West Antarctic Ice Sheet, waiting over 3000 years for a natural recovery is not a viable option, particularly considering the anticipated warmer climates.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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