Finding Evidence for West Antarctica's Latest Collapse

By: Rhea Agrawal

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet was believed to have collapsed 125,000 years ago, during a period similar to present-day Earth. Scientists believed that the collapse caused a rise in sea levels, but were not able to find a way to provide evidence until recently.

In order to find evidence of West Antarctica’s collapse, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will provide funds for a five year project, possibly costing more than three million dollars. In order to find evidence of the collapse, scientists will drill into the core of Hercules’ Dome, a region of ice that is 400 kilometers away from the South Pole.

Hercules is located between Antarctica’s western and eastern ice sheets, and if the western one was to have truly collapsed, “Hercules Dome would be sitting on the waterfront, so to speak,” explains Eric Steig, a glaciologist at the University of Washington and the project’s main investigator. In other words, the snow at Hercules would have preserved and captured a shift.

The subsidence of the ice sheet was believed to have been during the Eemian, a period between 129,000 and 116, 000 years ago that is the one of the closest analogies to present-day Earth. Average temperatures were about one degree warmer than at the moment, but sea levels were up to nine meters higher.

“Much of the land in western Antarctica sits below sea level, leaving the ice on top at risk of melt from intruding warm ocean waters, and glaciers fringing it are retreating fast,” says Paul Voosen, author of the article, and a writer who covers Earth and planetary science.

Learning about the collapse could also help to understand how fast it melted, which could be extremely useful to hypothesize how fast future sea levels might rise, and would give us a better timeline to be able to stop what some scientists believe to be inevitable.


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