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The University of California, Irvine, led a team of glaciologists who utilized high-resolution satellite radar data to discover evidence of warm, high-pressure seawater intrusion beneath West Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier. This process of ocean water interacting with the glacier causes vigorous melting and may necessitate a reevaluation of global sea level rise forecasts. The researchers used data collected by Finland’s ICEYE satellite mission from March to June of 2023, which allowed them to monitor changes on the Earth’s surface, specifically the movement of Thwaites Glacier. Through daily observations, the team was able to witness the seawater coming in and receding with the tidal cycle, shedding light on previously unseen dynamics.

Lead author Eric Rignot highlighted that the ICEYE satellite data presented continuous time-series observations that closely followed tidal cycles, offering a more comprehensive understanding of the seawater behavior under Thwaites Glacier. This research provided valuable insights into how seawater, freshwater, and geothermal flux combine beneath the ice sheet to generate pressure that elevates the ice. The influx of warm, salty seawater due to climate change-driven ocean currents contributes to the vigorous melting of the basal ice, a significant finding of the study. Co-author Christine Dow emphasized the importance of studying Thwaites Glacier, given its instability and potential impact on global sea levels, urging increased funding for further research in Antarctica and other polar regions.

The study’s findings are expected to enhance ice sheet modeling capabilities and improve projections related to sea level rise. By incorporating ocean-ice interaction processes into existing models, researchers believe they can better simulate past events and increase confidence in future projections. The team hopes that the results will inspire additional research efforts focusing on Antarctic glaciers, potentially involving autonomous robots and more satellite observations. Despite scientific enthusiasm for gathering data in remote regions like Antarctica, the lack of adequate funding poses a challenge to the research community’s ability to address critical observation gaps effectively.

Looking ahead, the researchers aim to determine the timeframe within which oceanwater intrusion beneath Antarctic glaciers could become irreversible, ultimately impacting global sea levels. By refining models and directing research towards understanding crucial glaciers like Thwaites, scientists hope to provide vital information for communities at risk of rising oceans. This work aligns with broader efforts to mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to changing sea levels. With financial support from NASA and the National Science Foundation, the collaborative effort between UC Irvine researchers and ICEYE is poised to advance our understanding of the complex interactions occurring beneath Antarctica’s glaciers, paving the way for more accurate climate change projections and adaptation strategies.

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