On thin ice

The Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica, which is around twice the size of Scotland, is losing ice four times as fast as it was a decade ago scientists warned today.


The Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica, which is around twice the size of Scotland, is losing ice four times as fast as it was a decade ago, Leeds University scientists warned today.


Their research also revealed that ice thinning is now occurring much further inland. At this rate, scientists estimate that the main section of the glacier will have disappeared in just 100 years, six times sooner than was previously thought.


The Pine Island Glacier is located within the most inaccessible area of Antarctica – more than 1,000km from the nearest research base – and was overlooked for many years. Now, scientists have been able to track the glacier’s development using continuous satellite measurements over the past 15 years.


‘Accelerated thinning of the Pine Island Glacier represents perhaps the greatest imbalance in the cryosphere today, and yet we would not have known about it if it weren’t for a succession of satellite instruments,’ said Prof Andrew Shepherd, from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds University.


‘Being able to assemble a continuous record of measurements over the past 15 years has provided us with the remarkable ability to identify both subtle and dramatic changes in ice that were previously hidden,’ he added.


Scientists believe that the retreat of glaciers in this sector of Antarctica is caused by warming of the surrounding oceans, though it is too early to link such a trend to global warming.


The 5,400km2 region of the Pine Island Glacier affected today is big enough to impact the rate at which sea level rises around the world.


‘Because the Pine Island Glacier contains enough ice to almost double the IPCC’s best estimate of 21st century sea level rise, the manner in which the glacier will respond to the accelerated thinning is a matter of great concern,’ said Prof Shepherd.