Current ice melt rate in Pine Island Glacier may go on for decades

A study of the Pine Island Glacier could provide insight into the patterns and duration of glacial melt.

The Pine Island Glacier, a major outlet of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, has been undergoing rapid melting and retreating for the past two decades. But new research by an international team including researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory shows that this same glacier also experienced rapid thinning about 8,000 years ago.

Using LLNL’s Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry to measure beryllium-10 produced by cosmic rays in glacially transported rocks, Lawrence Livermore researchers Bob Finkel and Dylan Rood reported that the melting 8,000 years ago was sustained for decades to centuries at an average rate of more than 100 centimeters per year. This is comparable to modern-day melting rates.

The findings indicate that modern-day melting and thinning could last for several more decades or even centuries. The research appears in the Feb. 20 issue of Science Express.

“Pine Island Glacier has experienced rapid thinning at least once in the past. Once set in motion, rapid ice sheet changes in this region can persist for centuries,” said Finkel, one of the authors of the new findings.

Ice mass loss from the Pine Island-Thwaites sector dramatically contributes to the sea level of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The Pine Island Glacier is currently experiencing significant acceleration, thinning and retreat. The rate of thinning from 2002-2007 on the grounding line (the part where the glaciers export the ice down the continent and lose contact to the ground and become a floating ice shelf) was between 1.2 meters per year and 6 meters per year.

The change is likely tied to the increased influx of warm water to the cavity under the ice shelf at the glacial front.

Dramatic changes over longer timescales — from centuries to millennia — are somewhat limited, so there is considerable uncertainty associated with model projections of the future evolution of timing and ice loss of the Pine Island Glacier. Current geological research is tied to the grounding line retreat across the continental shelf. However, little is known about the terrestrial thinning history and how the ice stream evolved from 8,000 years ago to the onset of present-day thinning.

The team found that there was a direct correlation from glacial-geological samples consisting of cobblestones and granite boulders from the Hudson Mountains to rapid thinning in the Pine Island Glacier system about 8,000 years ago.

“The melting of the Pine Island Glacier at a rate comparable to that over the past two decades is rare but not unprecedented,” Rood said. “Ongoing ocean-driven melting of the glacial ice shelf in current times may result in continued rapid thinning and ground line retreat for several more decades or even centuries.”

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