Global Warming Opens Up Antarctic Waterways

A turquoise lake forms from melting snow near Cape Folger on the Budd Coast in the Australian Antarctic Territory.
A turquoise lake forms from melting snow near Cape Folger on the Budd Coast in the Australian Antarctic Territory.Torsten Blackwood / AFP / Getty Images

On February 13, a yachting crew from Poland sailed its 67-foot sloop, Selma, to a latitude in Antarctica's Bay of Whales that's traditionally frozen solid, and only navigable by icebreaker. It was a hundred miles farther south than anyone had ever taken a sailboat. Temperatures hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit (it's the height of summer in the south pole) as the crew took turns hacking a heavy layer of frost that coated the ship's deck and rails. A storm briefly sent twenty-foot waves into their path, but the surface was calm when Selma finally ran out of sea. "We touched the ice of the Antarctic," skipper Piotr Kuniar told Radio Poland. "We cannot sail any further."

A pair of recent studies helps explain why there is more sea around Antarctica than ever before.

This week, a new study found that warming ocean temperatures are "accelerating melting and thinning" on the 2,500 square mile Totten Glacier in East Antarctica. A research team from Imperial College London flew over the ice sheet to gather radar readings, and compared their data with older satellite imagery. They discovered that a three-mile-wide valley had formed beneath the glacier, and warm water was likely flowing into the space. "It's only one glacier, but it's changing now and it is significant for sea levels globally," one of the paper's co-authors, Imperial College professor Martin Siegert, said in a statement. The Totten Glacier is one of the major outlets for the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, the largest mass of ice on Earth, which covers 98 percent of the continent. According to Siegert's estimates, the loss of the Totten Glacier alone could cause sea levels to rise over 11 feet.  


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This news comes on the heels of another study, released last May, which found warming ocean waters are melting the much smaller ice sheet in West Antarctica — where Selma's crew made its historic voyage — even more rapidly. Ice levels on the western side of the continent have been receding about ninety miles a year for a decade.

Both findings call into question a recent prediction from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that global sea-levels could rise no more than three feet by the year 2100. A number of scientists now believe current data from Antarctica suggest sea levels could rise ten feet in the next hundred years, enough to submerge the current residences of about 12.8 million Americans.

Either way, don't expect the Selma's record to stand for very long.

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