Antarctica may be much more vulnerable to climate change than scientists previously thought, according to a recent study published in Nature Climate Change.
A team of European researchers travelled to East Antarctica in January, to take a closer look at a mysterious crater spotted on the King Baudoin ice shelf in 2014.
A stream of water from melted ice is shown inside a crater on the King Baudouin ice shelf in East Antarctica. (Photo: Sanne Bosteels)
"At the time, the media reported that it was probably a meteorite impact crater,” Jan Lenaerts, a researcher with Utrecht University in the Netherlands and the University of Leuven in Belgium, said in a press release on Dec. 12, 2016. "My response was: in that area? Then it's definitely not a meteorite; it's proof of strong melting."
Lenaerts and his team suggest the crater is actually a collapsed lake with a moulin — a hole in the ice — which allows water to flow into the ocean, contributing to rising sea levels.
"It's definitely not a meteorite; it's proof of strong melting."
"That was a huge surprise,” said Stef Lhermitte of University of Leuven and Delft University in the Netherlands. “Moulins typically are observed on Greenland. And we definitely never see them on an ice shelf."
While the crater itself isn’t new, its cause may provide new evidence that ice sheets in Antarctica are susceptible to global warming. The team also discovered enormous rivers and lakes made of meltwater — some of which were several kilometres wide.
This underwater photo shows a lake of water made from melted ice, four metres below the icy surface in East Antarctica. (Photo: Stef Lhermitte).
Normally, few signs of climate change are found in East Antarctica, “because the area is so isolated from the rest of the world," Lenaerts said.
And while earlier studies have shown West Antarctica is “extremely sensitive” to climate change, “our research now suggests that the much larger East Antarctica ice sheet is also very vulnerable."