A study by researchers at the University of Texas, Austin found that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is collapsing due to geothermal heat, not man-made global warming.
Researchers from the UTA’s Institute for Geophysics found that the Thwaites Glacier in western Antarctica is being eroded by the ocean as well as geothermal heat from magma and subaerial volcanoes. Thwaites is considered a key glacier for understanding future sea level rise.
UTA researchers used radar techniques to map water flows under ice sheets and estimate the rate of ice melt in the glacier. As it turns out, geothermal heat from magma and volcanoes under the glacier is much hotter and covers a much wider area than was previously thought.
“Geothermal flux is one of the most dynamically critical ice sheet boundary conditions but is extremely difficult to constrain at the scale required to understand and predict the behavior of rapidly changing glaciers,” UTA researchers wrote in their study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The geothermal heat under the glaciers is likely a key factor in why the ice sheet is currently collapsing. Before this study, it was assumed that heat flow under the glacier was evenly distributed throughout, but UTA’s study shows this is not the case. Heat levels under the glacier are uneven, with some areas being much hotter than others.
“The combination of variable subglacial geothermal heat flow and the interacting subglacial water system could threaten the stability of Thwaites Glacier in ways that we never before imagined,” lead researcher David Schroeder said in a press release.
“It’s the most complex thermal environment you might imagine,” echoed co-author Don Blankenship “And then you plop the most critical dynamically unstable ice sheet on planet Earth in the middle of this thing, and then you try to model it. It’s virtually impossible.”
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