The first comprehensive study of glaciers around the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula reveals the real impact of recent climate change.
Results from the study by researchers at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the US Geological Survey (USGS) published in the journal Science, show that over the last 50 years 87% of 244 glaciers studied have retreated, and that average retreat rates have accelerated.
BAS and USGS analysed more than 2000 aerial photographs dating from 1940, and over 100 satellite images from the 1960s onwards, to calculate the position of glacier fronts along the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. These historical records reveal previously unknown patterns of change.
‘Fifty years ago, most of the glaciers we looked at were slowly growing in length but since then this pattern has reversed. In the last 5 years the majority were actually shrinking rapidly. The retreat began at the northern, warmer tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and, broadly speaking, moved southwards as atmospheric temperatures rose. This region has shown dramatic and localised warming – around 2°C in the last 50 years – but this is not the only factor causing the changes. It’s a complex picture,’ said lead author, Alison Cook.
‘On average, the glaciers we studied retreated by 50 m per year in the last five years, faster than at any other time in the last fifty years. However 32 glaciers go against the trend and are showing minor advance. Had we not studied such a large number of glaciers we may have missed the overall pattern. It’s the change from advance to retreat that suggests warming is the key cause, but these glaciers clearly show a more complex response than neighbouring ice shelves,’ she added.
‘These glacier retreat patterns combined with dramatic ice shelf break-ups leave us in no doubt that the Antarctic Peninsula ice sheet is extremely sensitive to recent warming. What we still need to determine is whether or not the warming in this area has its roots in human-influenced global warming. Either way, continuing retreat of glaciers in this area is important because it could allow more ice to drain from further inland and contribute to sea level rise. The current effect may be small in global terms, but this research takes us a step closer to understanding the cause and predicting the future,’ concluded BAS Glaciologist, Dr. David Vaughan, a co-author of the paper.