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San Diego researcher studies lake collapse on Antarctic Ice Shelf

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Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Above: A huge lake of melted water collapses on the Amery ice floe in Antarctica in this undated photo

Australian glaciologist Roland Warner was researching the profound impacts of recent forest fires in his country. He postulated that particles from the fire may have drifted south to the Antarctic ice shelves.

While examining the images compiled by the ICE-Sat 2 satellite, he noticed something unusual in the images taken during the device’s pole-to-pole journey. There have been changes in a massive lake covered in ice.

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It is common for ice and sleet to accumulate in the low points of the pack ice, and this lake has accumulated water for decades.

But this huge lake on the Amery ice floe was no longer full of water.

“In the middle of winter, when you expect everything to stay really cold. Frozen. And not much is happening, especially anything that involves water in liquid form, ”said Helen Fricker, glaciologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

“And then bang,” Fricker said. “A dry lake. And we wouldn’t have known if it hadn’t been for the benefit of satellite observations. “

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Fricker was part of the team that tried to figure out what had happened.

The lake itself was huge. Satellite images show the body of water with an ice cover of more than four square miles.

Researchers estimate that there were 21 to 26 million cubic feet of water in the lake, nearly double the volume of water in San Diego Bay.

The team determined the time of the incident to be one week in June, in the middle of the arctic winter.

“We believe that the weight of the water accumulated in this deep lake has opened a crack in the ice shelf below the lake, a process known as hydrofracture, causing the water to drain towards the ocean below, ”said lead study author Roland Warner, a glaciologist with the Australian Antarctic Program Partnership at the University of Tasmania.

Once the water escaped, the ice cover collapsed into a bowl about 260 feet deep. With the water load gone, the floating ice was then pushed back, leaving an elevation about 118 higher than the original lake surface.

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Fricker credits the satellite with recording an event that might never have been discovered.

“So this ability that we’ve shown with ICE Sat-2 is going to help us learn more about the meltwater systems all around the two ice caps,” Fricker said.

Scientists hope that understanding events like this will help scientists improve their models, which aim to predict what will happen to sea ice under different circumstances.

The results are published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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