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A study has determined that the presence of subglacial meltwater beneath Antarctic glaciers may expedite their retreat

A recent study has revealed that the outflow of meltwater from beneath Antarctic glaciers, known as subglacial discharge, may be causing these glaciers to lose ice at an accelerated rate. By simulating the impact of subglacial discharge on the retreat of two glaciers in East Antarctica, researchers observed that it increased the glaciers’ contribution to future sea-level rise by 15.7%, raising it from 19 millimetres to 22 millimetres by the year 2300.

This effect becomes particularly significant in scenarios with high CO2 emissions, such as a 20% increase by 2100. The researchers, hailing from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, emphasize that the influence of subglacial discharge is substantial enough to have a meaningful impact on global sea-level rise. The two East Antarctic glaciers, Denman and Scott, collectively contain enough ice to raise sea levels by nearly 1.5 meters (or approximately 5 feet).

Notably, existing sea-level rise projections, including those by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), do not incorporate the subglacial discharge mechanism, suggesting that current estimates may underestimate the pace of future global sea-level rise.

Tyler Pelle, the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at Scripps, stressed the importance of accurate sea-level rise predictions for the well-being of coastal communities, especially given the millions of people residing in low-lying coastal areas.

In Antarctica, subglacial meltwater forms through ice melting at the point where it contacts the continental bedrock. When subglacial discharge flows into the sea, it is believed to expedite the melting of the glacier’s ice shelf, driven by ocean mixing that introduces additional heat beneath the glacier’s floating ice shelf. This process ultimately contributes to glacial retreat and, in turn, global sea-level rise.

The reason why this subglacial discharge mechanism hasn’t been incorporated into current sea-level rise projections is that researchers were uncertain about whether its localized effects were substantial enough to have a global impact, as explained by Jamin Greenbaum, a co-author of the study and a researcher at Scripps Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics.

One crucial takeaway from the study is the pivotal role of humanity’s actions in the coming decades to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The research found that in a scenario with lower emissions, the glaciers did not retreat entirely into the trench, thus avoiding substantial contributions to future sea-level rise. Greenbaum emphasized that the real concern remains emissions, and the fate of sea-level rise is largely in humanity’s hands.

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