Scientists drilled Antarctica’s largest ice shelf to get key climate data

Brittany A. Roston - Jul 2, 2020, 3:41 pm CDT
Scientists drilled Antarctica’s largest ice shelf to get key climate data

As the climate warms, sea levels rise. This increase in water levels is caused by melting sea ice, something that includes melt that typically happens on the underside exposed to the ocean, at least when it comes to ice shelves. A new study has leveraged modern technologies to get new measurements from the center of the underside of Antarctica’s biggest ice shelf, shedding new light on the processes driving the melting.

The Ross Ice Shelf is the single largest ice shelf in Antarctica — it is more than 372 miles long and, in some places, it extends more than 160 feet above the surface of the ocean. Most of this ice is located in the water, however, where the majority of the melt on ice shelves occur. The center of the underside is where the new measurements were taken.

The first measurements of this part of the ice shelf took place in 1977; the latest detailed in a new study in PNAS: Physical Sciences is the second-ever measurements from the same location. This time around, researchers spent more time gathering the data and were able to use much newer, more advanced technologies compared to the ’70s measurements.

The expedition took place in December 2017 and involved using a hot-water drill to bore through nearly a quarter-mile of ice down below the surface of the ocean. Using this hole, the scientists deposited and left instruments that spent the next two years capturing measurements from this part of the ice shelf, providing new details on the ice melt that occurs.

Thanks to the aforementioned newer technologies, the researchers received the data from a satellite to which it was transmitted. Key information provided by this data will include a better understanding of how ocean water moves under the ice shelf and the wider processes driving this. Some changes were noted in the new data when compared to the info from 1977, including changes in salinity.

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