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West Antarctica's subglacial plumbing system mapped from space

A network of rapidly filling and emptying lakes lies beneath at least two of West Antarctica's ice streams, new research suggests.

The findings will be published online by the journal Science, at the Science Express website, on Thursday, 15 February. Science is the journal of AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

More than 100 subglacial lakes have already been discovered, but the new ones are particularly interesting because they occur below fast-moving ice. Though it's too early to say exactly how this liquid water is affecting the rates of ice flow above, understanding the behavior of these fast-moving ice streams is essential for predicting how Antarctica may contribute to sea level rise.

Helen Fricker of the University of California San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography and colleagues analyzed elevation data recorded by NASA's Ice Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) collected over the lower parts of the Whillans and Mercer Ice Streams. These are two of the major, fast-moving glaciers that are carrying ice from the interior of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to the floating Ross Ice Shelf.

"We've found that there are substantial subglacial lakes under ice that's moving a couple of meters per day. It's really ripping along. It's the fast-moving ice that determines how the ice sheet responds to climate change on a short timescale," said Robert Bindschadler of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, one of the study's coauthors.

"We aren't yet able to predict what these ice streams are going to do. We're still learning about the controlling processes. Water is critical, because it's essentially the grease on the wheel. But we don't know the details yet," he said.

Glaciologists have known that water exists under ice streams, but the observation of a system of water storage reservoirs is unprecedented. The surprising thing about this discovery is the amount of water involved, and
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Contact: Natasha Pinol
npinol@aaas.org
415-394-3257
American Association for the Advancement of Science
15-Feb-2007


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