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Antarctic ice at greater risk of melting than presumed, spy satellite data shows

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East Antarctic
East Antarctic

It's long been acknowledged that climate change is having an impact on some of the world's ice sheets: glaciers in Greenland, for instance, experienced massive ice loss due to above-average temperatures last year, and a recent report suggests that the Arctic might be entirely ice-free as early as 2020. Now, a fascinating new study reveals that a massive ice sheet thought to be immune from climate change might be more vulnerable than previously believed.

Researchers out of Durham University used declassified satellite imagery, dating back to 1963, to examine how East Antarctica responds to temperature changes. The East Antarctic ice sheet is the largest in the world, with some regions more than 2.5 miles thick and at elevations higher than anywhere else on the continent. Those factors, combined with the brutally cold temperatures in the area, led researchers to suspect that East Antarctica wouldn't suffer the same ramifications from warmer weather as spots like Greenland or West Antarctica.

Unfortunately, this new study suggests they were wrong. Investigators examined 300 satellite images of 175 glaciers, with the goal of evaluating whether the outer regions of those glaciers advanced or retreated in response to atmospheric cooling or warming. Over a total period of 40 years, the team concluded that the glaciers were indeed acutely sensitive to climate trends. "It was a big see rapid and synchronous changes in advance and retreat, but it made perfect sense when we looked at the climate and sea-ice data," study co-author Chris Stokes, PhD, said in a statement. "When it was warm and the sea-ice decreased, most glaciers retreated, but when it was cooler and the sea ice increased, the glaciers advanced."

The isolated nature of East Antarctica means that it's been subject to fewer studies than other ice sheets, but this team hopes to see that trend change — soon. Given that the region holds a vast quantity of ice (enough to raise global sea levels by around 164 feet), its potential impact on the world's waterways threatens to be significant.