In a laboratory in southern California, a researcher is poring over data collected from deep beneath Antarctica. And the measurements reveal a startling insight into what secrets lie far below our feet. In particular, the results paint a worrying picture in regards to climate change – and it seems that humanity could be facing a greater threat than ever before.
Ever since the explorer James Cook first navigated this frozen wasteland, mankind has seemingly been fascinated by the vast expanse of Antarctica. But while modern technology has helped us to map its icy terrain, there is much about this mysterious continent that remains unexplained. And considering it’s almost twice the size of Australia, that’s probably no big surprise.
But in 2014 a team of researchers from multiple institutions used a combination of physics and cutting-edge technology to create a new map of Antarctica. And five years later, they released the startling results. As a consequence of this study, the scientists had gleaned some worrying insights into the impact of climate change on one of Earth’s most extreme regions.
With global temperatures continually rising, many are concerned about what will happen if Antarctica’s ice sheet melts. And in order to more accurately predict the future, scientists must gather as much information as they can about the frozen continent. But will this latest development help us to stave off a terrifying fate?
Antarctica – the least-visited continent on planet Earth – remains a mystery to much of the world. In fact, its 5.5 million square miles are not home to any permanent residents. And only a handful of researchers and tourists visit every year. But for all its desolation, the frozen region holds an almost hypnotic sway that has captured our imagination.
Located in the far southern hemisphere surrounding the South Pole, Antarctica is almost completely covered in ice. And in many places, these frozen shelves stretch down for more than 6,200 feet. Unsurprisingly, this hostile environment is difficult for humans to survive in, although a selection of intrepid animals, including seals, call the landmass home.
Apart from our flippered friends, Antarctica had no indigenous population to speak of. Humans didn’t know about the landmass at all until the 1770s, in fact, when the British navigator Cook began exploring the region. And since then, researchers have made several attempts to uncover the secrets of the frozen continent. But with icy temperatures that have been known to plummet to almost -130°F, collecting data here is apparently no easy task.
In the past, researchers have used radar technology in order to map the terrain that lies beneath the ice sheets of Antarctica. Using pulses of microwave radiation, they have been able to gaze beneath the frozen tundra and build up a picture of what lies below. But this technique has always had its limitations.
In some of the deepest parts of Antarctica, for instance, radar technology has been unable to accurately map the terrain. According to experts, this is because the microwaves bounce off the sides of valleys or trenches without reaching the bottom. And as such, it has been impossible for scientists to determine exactly what lies beneath the surface.
However, in December 2019 all that changed, thanks to a team of researchers hailing from various institutions across Europe, Australia, China, South Korea, India and the United States. In that month, you see, the results of a study led by the University of California were published. And contained within it were some fascinating – and sobering – new facts about Antarctica.
Dubbed BedMachine Antarctica, the project was kick-started to build the most accurate map yet of the terrain beneath the frozen continent. And in order to do so, those involved in the enterprise consulted records from 19 different institutions dating all the way back to 1967. In the decades since, it seems, researchers have compiled almost a million miles worth of radar data.
Using this data as a starting point, then, the researchers began constructing their map of Antarctica. However, there were still large areas of the continent that remained uncharted. So the scientists turned to a different approach in order to fill in the gaps – a method known as mass conservation.
Essentially, the principle of mass conservation is a law in physics which states that mass cannot change over time. Therefore, in a system where neither matter nor energy can enter or leave, the mass will remain the same. And even if chemical reactions take place within that system, the resultant components will have the same mass.
But what does that mean in layman’s terms – and just how has it helped BedMachine’s researchers build up a clearer picture of the Antarctic terrain? Well, by following the principle of mass conservation, it seems that the team successfully established just how much ice is trapped in the continent’s sunken valleys.
Apparently, the process involved using satellite data to determine exactly how ice was moving across Antarctica. And once researchers knew how much frozen matter was entering the continent’s valleys – and how quickly it was moving – they had everything they needed. Armed with this information, the scientists were well on their way to filling in gaps in their knowledge that radar simply couldn’t penetrate.
And by establishing the volume of ice in Antarctica’s valleys, the researchers could learn even more. Yes, they were also apparently able to determine how deep the features stretched beneath the surface. As well as this, it seems that the scientists could even predict the exact shape and contours of the valley floor.
So, on December 12, 2019, the results of the study were finally made public in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience. And the following day, they were announced at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, CA. Amazingly, the researchers had succeeded in creating the most detailed map of Antarctica to date.
“This is undoubtedly the most accurate portrait yet of what lies beneath Antarctica’s ice sheet,” study co-author Dr. Mathieu Morlighem told the BBC in December 2019. But even he could not have predicted what this ground-breaking work would uncover. Yes, according to reports, it seems that the BedMachine project has revealed a record-breaking canyon hidden beneath the surface of Antarctica.
In East Antarctica – where the frozen continent meets the Southern Ocean – there is an Australian territory known as Queen Mary Land. And back in 1912 explorers discovered a vast glacier in this remote and desolate terrain. Dubbed the Denman Glacier, it stretches for some 12 miles across the landscape.
The really exciting thing about the Denman Glacier, though, is the canyon that lies beneath it. And thanks to the BedMachine project, we now know that this valley reaches far below sea level – some 11,500 feet to be exact. In fact, it’s the deepest point ever discovered on the surface of the Earth.
And before this discovery, the deepest known point on land was located thousands of miles away, on the edge of the Dead Sea. But at only 1,355 feet below sea level, this is nothing compared to the canyon beneath the Denman Glacier. In fact, the measurements place the new find some eight times deeper than the previous record holder.
Of course, the glacier is far from the deepest point on planet Earth as a whole: the famous Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean plunges nearly seven miles down – almost 37,000 feet. But on dry land, the canyon mapped by Morlighem and his colleagues is definitely a record holder.
And while some have pointed out that there are valleys on land – such as China’s Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon – that are capable of giving Antarctica’s a run for its money, the comparison seems unjust. According to records, the Yarlung Tsangpo feature reaches a depth of almost 20,000 feet, making it undoubtedly a record-breaker in its own right. Unlike the terrain beneath the Denman Glacier, though, its floor is not below sea level.
“The trenches in the ocean are deeper, but this is the deepest canyon on land,” Morlighem told the BBC. However, until the BedMachine project came along, previous efforts to map the valley had been resoundingly unsuccessful. “There have been many attempts to sound the bed of Denman, but every time they flew over the canyon, they couldn’t see it in the radar data,” the researcher continued.
“The trough is so entrenched that you get side-echoes from the walls of the valley, and they make it impossible to detect the reflection from the actual bed of the glacier,” Morlighem explained. But now, researchers have been able to catch a glimpse of the canyon in all its glory.
Thanks to this discovery alone, the BedMachine project had seemingly earned its place in the history books. Morlighem and his colleagues found more than just the deepest point on the surface of the Earth, though. In fact, their achievements may help to pave the way for a deeper understanding of how climate change will affect our planet.
Interestingly, it’s all to do with how this previously unmapped terrain could affect the retreat of Antarctica’s glaciers as the Earth heats up. According to researchers, landscapes that slope inland can actually speed up this process, causing rising sea levels. It’s not all bad news, though, and apparently there are certain geographical features that can even have the opposite effect.
At the Transantarctic Mountains, for instance, a number of glaciers have formed on the eastern coast of the frozen continent. And at the moment, they flow into the Ross Sea, where a floating sheet of ice stems their movement. Previously, however, some researchers have expressed concern over what might happen should that sheet melt.
According to previous models, it was predicted that the ice sheet melting would speed up the rate at which the glaciers feed into the Ross Sea. But the BedMachine project has revealed data that could challenge this preconception. Apparently, the study has discovered that a high ridge runs beneath the ice.
Crucially, this ridge could slow down the rate at which the glaciers of the Transantarctic Mountains drain into the sea. And as such, the melting of the Ross Sea ice shelf might not be quite as catastrophic as some had previously feared. In fact, Morlighem notes, the hypothetical scenario of a faster retreat could be a false alarm.
“If something happened to the Ross Sea ice shelf – and right now it’s fine, but if something happened – it will most likely not trigger the collapse of East Antarctica through these ‘gates,’” Morlighem told the BBC. “If East Antarctica is threatened, it’s not from the Ross Sea.” Sadly, though, the outlook was not quite so hopeful elsewhere.
For on the other side of Antarctica, a vast glacier approximately the size of the United Kingdom flows into the Amundsen Sea. And already, it’s one of the region’s fastest-moving shelves of ice, traveling more than a mile each year. But according to the data compiled by the BedMachine project, the icy mass could retreat even faster in the future.
Crucially, the study has revealed that the Thwaites Glacier, as it is known, sits on top of a landscape that slopes inland. And according to experts, this type of terrain typically speeds up retreat. But unfortunately, that’s not all. According to researchers, the land beneath the glacier is almost completely devoid of the sort of ridges that might slow it down.
In fact, according to the study, there are just two ridges in the land surrounding Thwaites Glacier. And these are between 18 and 30 miles away from its current location. So once the retreating ice has passed these points, there could be no stopping it. Given the vast size of the glacier, experts have noted, this could be a cause for concern.
But while it might be difficult to imagine how this lost world beneath Antarctica affects the glaciers above, one researcher has provided an excellent analogy. According to Dr. Emma Smith, who worked with Morlighem, the process is similar to how a thick liquid moves across a surface.
“Imagine if you poured a bunch of treacle on to a flat surface and watched how it flowed outward,” Smith told the BBC. “Then pour the same treacle on to a surface with a lot of lumps and bumps, different slopes and ridges – the way the treacle would spread out would be very different.” And according to the researcher, the ice in Antarctica behaves in the exact same way.
Interestingly, the Thwaites Glacier and the Transantarctic Mountains were not the only regions to be exposed by the BedMachine project. According to reports, researchers also learned more about the terrain beneath Recovery Glacier in northwest Antarctica. Clocking in at some 60 miles long, the vast ice sheet currently sheds some 35 billion tons of ice and water every year.
But thanks to BedMachine, researchers have been able to learn more about the terrain beneath Recovery Glacier. Apparently, the bed is crisscrossed by trenches that could be hundreds of feet deeper than previously believed. And with this clearer picture of what Antarctica looks like underneath, we may be able to improve our predictions for the future.
Moving forward, the team plan to use the information gathered by BedMachine to update existing models of how Antarctica might respond to climate change. And with better data, it’s hoped that we can build a better understanding of how the continent might change as temperatures rise.
For many, this work is seen as vital if we are to survive the perils of climate change. In the last 18 years alone, for instance, experts claim that as much as three trillion tons of ice has vanished from Antarctica. And if the planet continues to get warmer, this trend will likely continue, seeing sea levels rise across the globe. But while we may not be able to halt this terrifying process, we might at least begin to understand it. And with understanding hopefully come new solutions to the problem.
This was far from the first time that the dangers of global warming at the poles has been brought home, though. It’s no secret that climate change is one of the biggest issues facing the world today. And wrapped up in that issue is the melting of the polar ice caps. However, this particular part of the problem is one that can often feel difficult to comprehend. Now, though, NASA has released a time-lapse that illustrates the reality of the situation – and it makes for harrowing viewing.
Global warming is just one part of the broader issue of climate change, although the two terms are colloquially used to refer to the same thing. In simple terms, however, the former covers the process by which the Earth has warmed as a direct result of human actions. And while there are historical examples of periods of global warming, it’s the rate at which it’s currently happening that’s most alarming.
Indeed, it’s widely agreed that since the 1950s global warming has occurred at unprecedented levels. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report in 2013 warned that the temperature of the Earth’s surface could rise as high as 8.6 °F this century – which is a significant increase on the current level. Of course, these changes are largely the result of human influences such as accelerated greenhouse gas emissions, including nitrous oxide, methane and carbon dioxide. And as well as its increased surface temperature, the Earth faces a host of other effects, too.
Rising sea levels, for instance, are just one consequence that an increase in global temperature could have. In fact, the IPCC has further warned that global sea levels could increase by nearly nine feet in the 21st century. And that’s not just as a result of thermal expansion as the oceans heat up, but also the melting of the ice sheets and ice caps around Greenland and Antarctica.
Meanwhile, the Earth’s polar ice caps consist predominantly of water ice. And while that might sound obvious, it isn’t always the case. Take Mars, for example, where the ice caps also consist of solid carbon dioxide. That’s right: the only real requirement for a body of ice to be termed a “polar ice cap” is that it’s in the polar region – which for us means the Arctic Ocean at the North Pole, and Antarctica at the South Pole.
And these polar ice caps have been severely affected by global warming over the past few decades. Furthermore, while there’s still a sizable contingent of the population that doesn’t believe it’s happening at all, public perception of the issue is growing. In 2015, for instance, a study by the Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of people consider climate change a “very serious problem.”
Fortunately, though, politicians around the world have been constantly urging countries and businesses to take action. For example, in March 2019 environment ministers from countries in the Arctic region – including Finland and Norway – spoke out at the UN Environment Assembly and called for “global efforts” to limit how quickly glaciers in the region are thawing.
It’s not just in remote oceans where global warming is having an impact, though. Indeed, a team of scientists from Midwestern universities and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have warned that the Great Lakes region in the U.S. is warming much faster than the rest of the country. And this could have dire consequences.
You see, owing to their vast size, the Great Lakes affect the weather systems around them – keeping nearby areas cooler during the summer and winter months. A temperature change could have adverse effects, then, such as more severe storms, heatwaves and even increased snowfall in areas where that happens already. Meanwhile, the water quality of the lakes will likely worsen, thereby impacting millions who rely on them for drinking water.
So, with these alarming issues – and others, to boot – set to have such a direct impact on society, it’s no wonder that many people are taking action. In March 2019, for instance, tens of thousands of students all around the world skipped school to protest climate change, demanding that politicians take action. And a month earlier pupils in the U.K. had done the same, gathering in groups of thousands across the country.
As this action takes place, however, a number of big oil firms have been using their wealth and power to oppose climate change policy. Yes, according to a 2019 report from the U.K.-based non-profit company InfluenceMap, companies including BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil each spend around $200 million every year to control, block or delay policies designed to tackle climate change.
But that doesn’t mean that these policies are off the table altogether. And in 2015 195 members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) signed the Paris Agreement, which encourages countries to constantly improve upon their previous targets to combat global warming. For instance, France has announced that by 2022 it will move completely away from using coal to generate electricity.
And other governments are finding different ways to make their countries more eco-friendly too. Take Chile, for example. As the leading country in copper production, the South American nation is well placed to make the switch to electric vehicles. Indeed, according to Chile’s minister of mining, Baldo Prokurica, by March 2019 the country had the second highest amount of electric buses in the world – behind only China.
What’s more, regardless of the machinations of businesses and governments, it’s clear that these policies are absolutely necessary. And monitoring the extent to which climate change has affected the polar ice caps is just one way of showing it. Fortunately, though, that’s exactly what NASA has been doing for several years.
Specifically, NASA’s scientists and researchers have been measuring the levels of Arctic sea ice. And as a general rule: the thicker the ice is, the older it is. This is because younger and thinner ice melts away – particularly in warm summers. The thicker ice, however, isn’t as badly affected and simply adds more bulk on the following winter.
Or at least, that’s what used to happen. Nowadays, though, the story is a little different. You see, in recent years, even that base level of thick ice has melted away at an alarming rate – according to data compiled by NASA. Meanwhile, direct measurements of the Arctic’s sea ice thickness are unfortunately inconsistent too; however, in the early 2000s scientists did find a way to track this more accurately.
Indeed, the team from the University of Colorado used a series of so-called satellite passive microwave instruments to observe the movement and thickness of the Arctic sea ice. Specifically, they measured the ice’s “brightness temperature,” which would allow them to locate and track specific ice floes as they traveled across the ocean.
To do this, the scientists collected data on the microwave energy released by the ice – which is affected, in turn, by its temperature, surface texture and salinity. Walt Meier, a NASA sea ice researcher, wrote on NASA’s website in October 2016, “It’s like bookkeeping; we’re keeping track of sea ice as it moves around, up until it melts in place or leaves the Arctic.”
So, what of the ice itself? Well, over the course of its first year, newly formed ice can grow up to seven feet in thickness. Then, if the ice survives its first melting season and subsequent seasons thereafter, it can grow up to 13 feet in thickness. And not only is the thicker ice less likely to melt, but it’s also more resistant to other weather conditions such as wind, storms or waves.
The recent trend towards the Arctic sea ice becoming younger and thinner is not good news, then. Indeed, it simply means that there’s an ever-greater chance of the melting season having a more detrimental effect on it. And if reading about the problem sounds worrying, NASA’s visualization will only exacerbate those fears.
Using a combination of the data collected by the University of Colorado team along with its own scientists’ estimates, NASA produced a time-lapse of how the Arctic ice cap has changed over a 32-year period – from 1984 to 2016. And the results are more than a little distressing.
NASA published the time-lapse video on YouTube in November 2016 and since then, the 43-second clip has had nearly 320,000 views. And the visualization’s accompanying description explained, “This animation shows the Arctic sea ice age for the week of the minimum ice extent for each year, depicting the age in different colors.”
And that’s exactly what the graphic does. Indeed, as the video goes on, the enormous mass of ice can be seen shifting around the ocean, gradually growing smaller and smaller with each passing year. The brighter, white ice is thought to be around five years old, while the deeper, blue ice is much younger. What’s clear, though, is that the older portion shrinks rapidly over the three decades the time-lapse tracks.
But while there’s a steady pattern of reduction in the size of the ice cap, there are also two specific instances of major ice loss that the time-lapse highlights. The first occurred way back in 1989 after a variation in weather patterns abnormally affected two Arctic ocean currents: the Beaufort Gyre and the Transpolar Drift Stream.
And as the video shows, this first period of significant ice loss lasted for just a few years. The second spell, however, began in the mid-2000s and hasn’t let up since. What’s more, this time the circumstances are a little different. “Unlike in the 1980s, it’s not so much as ice being flushed out – though that’s still going on too,” Meier continued. “What’s happening now more is that the old ice is melting within the Arctic Ocean during the summertime.”
Meier then elaborated further on this point. He explained, “One of the reasons is that the multi-year ice used to be a pretty consolidated ice pack, and now we’re seeing relatively smaller chunks of old ice interspersed with younger ice. These isolated floes of thicker ice are much easier to melt.”
Indeed, where once it was merely the younger ice that was impacted heavily each summer, now it’s the older ice that’s suffering the consequences of global warming, too. Thirty years ago, in fact, the multi-year ice that served as the bedrock of the polar ice cap comprised 20 percent of its total. Now, that number has been cut back dramatically to just three percent.
Meanwhile, as the older ice disappears, the chances of the Arctic experiencing an ice-free summer only rise. And yet, a 2018 study by NASA found that sea ice is actually growing faster in the winter months – in comparison to decades ago. So, conversely, this means that the prospect of an ice-free summer in the Arctic looks set to be delayed a little while longer.
If that’s the case, though, why does the time-lapse seem so distressing? Well, it’s because this fast growth is essentially offset by how rapidly the ice melts in the summer months. Yet the tiny silver lining is that the increased winter growth goes a little way toward combating that increased melt speed.
But NASA says that the ice-free Arctic will eventually come to pass anyway. That’s because while the sea ice loss is occurring slower than previously, it is still happening nonetheless. In fact, since satellite records began four decades ago, 2019 was the joint-seventh-lowest year for the Arctic ice cap’s maximum extent – the peak surface area covered by sea ice within a year.
Meanwhile, the warmer summers really began taking their toll on the Arctic ice cap in 2018. That’s right: the very oldest and thickest ice started to break up for the first time in recorded history. And this rupturing actually happened twice in 2018 – largely as the result of a heatwave in the northern hemisphere and subsequent warm winds.
The region where this breakup happened is located north of Greenland and has traditionally had the nickname “the last ice area.” That’s because scientists assumed that it would be the last place to suffer the effects of global warming. And normally, the Transpolar Drift Stream would cause the ice here to pile up into a thick, dense layer on the coastline. This packing effect would then safeguard the ice from any winds or storms that could break it up.
But the warm winds of 2018 prevented the ice from compacting in this way. Instead, the ice was pushed out from the coastline. And in open waters, the frozen mass is more vulnerable to being broken up. Indeed, as Meier told The Guardian in 2018, “The thinning is reaching even the coldest part of the Arctic with the thickest ice. So it’s a pretty dramatic indication of the transformation of the Arctic sea ice and Arctic climate.”
Meanwhile, Thomas Lavergne, a scientist at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, labeled the development as “scary,” adding that the damage done to Greenland’s coastline would be permanent. He told The Guardian, “The thick old sea ice will have been pushed away from the coast, to an area where it will melt more easily.”
Indeed, current predictions state that ice will disappear entirely from the Arctic in the summer months somewhere between 2030 and 2050. That eventuality could have catastrophic consequences for Arctic wildlife, including walruses and polar bears. And, of course, human settlements around the region could suffer, too.
At the moment, then, the Earth is heading towards a whopping 5.4 °F of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100. In real terms, that’s practically guaranteeing that the Arctic’s ice-free summers will come to pass. But a pair of studies published in Nature Climate Change in 2018 argued that it is possible to limit the impact.
However, this will only happen if we can scale that warming back to 3.6 °F, or even further to 2.7 °F. And according to University of Colorado climate researcher Alexandra Jahn, reaching the second target – which is the eventual aim of the Paris Agreement – would reduce the chances of an ice-free summer by 2100 from 100 percent to just 30 percent.
In fact, according to the studies, there’s quite a large difference between those two figures – even if they are only 0.9 degrees apart. Yes, even if the rise in temperature is held to 3.6 °F, it’s likely that the Arctic will still suffer significant impacts. Meier told Mashable in 2018, “I think that somewhere between [2.7 °F] and [3.6 °F], the ice cover gets thin enough over a large enough region of the Arctic for it to completely melt during summer.”
“At the low end, [2.7 °F], there is probably enough remaining thick ice… that it’s less likely that all of that thicker ice could melt in a summer,” Meier continued. But with the world on course for double that figure at the moment, it’s going to take some serious global efforts to hit the Paris Agreement’s target.
Regardless, reading about the Arctic ice cap melting isn’t quite the same as watching it happen before your very eyes. But, fortunately, NASA’s terrifying time-lapse has done a great job of illustrating just how severe the problem is. And although the video may make for distressing viewing, it’s also vital for helping people understand just how disastrous climate change can be – and, indeed, already has been.