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30 August 2016

Blue Lakes Appearing on the Surface of Antarctica

Recently, Antarctica has been the belle of the ball, at the centre of much research and studies. The latest batch of investigations has discovered blue lakes forming on the surface of the frozen continent. Specifically, East Antarctica has been affected, and, to be even more exact, the area atop Langhovde Glacier in Dronning Maud Land boasts nearly 8,000 lakes. These ‘supraglacial’ or meltwater lakes have been splashing their vibrant hue across the land since 2000. The numbers have only increased since then, with the lakes atop Langhovde Glacier multiplying in number.

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Greenland’s ice sheet is quickly melting away, and it has more than a little to do with meltwater lakes.

According to researchers, the beautiful and harrowing feature is linked to the accelerated melting of the Greenland ice sheet. During the summer, these lakes can be seen on top of the ice sheet and on surrounding glaciers. Once a lake has formed, there are several possible outcomes: random disappearance through refreezing, drainage into the ice below which increases glacial movement (ice sliding into the sea), or the fresh, cold lake-water flows into the sea causing a tornado-like underwater flow pattern causing ice loss. There’s a two-thirds chance of a negative outcome. With those odds, it’s only natural to expect the lakes to weaken the affected structure and contribute to fractures or breakage.

Emily Langley of Durham, leader of the lake study, along with Jamieson and Chris Stokes had their findings on the East Antarctica meltwater lakes published by the Geophysical Research Letters. According to their research, the lakes have been found inland and outland from the “grounding line,” the area where the bottom of a glacier touches the sea bottom. If the lakes take either of the unfavourable options above, the integrity of the ice shelf or sheet could be compromised. An ice sheet is the portion of the glacier resting atop the land. An ice shelf is a thick stretch of ice protruding into the ocean, attached to the ice sheet. If the lakes caused the ice shelf to weaken or separate, the glacier itself will become less stable with little to lessen the flow of the glacier into the ocean. This means sea levels will rise. If East Antarctica were to go the way of Greenland and rapidly disintegrate, sea levels would rise 6.6 feet in just a couple years.

It cannot be definitely proven that these lakes are weakening the ice shelf since satellite images are the closest most scientists can come to the phenomena. However, the mere existence of the lakes is a problem that can only worsen if climate change continues. In Greenland, 1 trillion tonnes of ice have been lost from 2011 to 2014, likely from these lakes.

According to the study, “The parallels between these mechanisms, and those observed on Greenland/the Antarctic Peninsula, suggest that lakes may similarly affect rates and patterns of ice melt, ice flow and ice shelf disintegration in East Antarctica.”

Something like this has not yet been seen in East Antarctica, a portion of the continent that was considered stable. The lakes atop the East Antarctica glacier are a by-product of warm surface air, forming when temperatures are above freezing. Many of the lakes have most likely come into existence during the summer of 2012-2013 which had a documented 37 days of temperatures above freezing in the Southern Hemisphere.

It should be made clear that these meltwater lakes are not simply a plague of East Antarctica as other parts of coastal Antarctica bear the same burden, though they do so less observably. Overall, we should keep in mind what impact we have on the environment. 

Jacqui Litvan

Jacqui Litvan, wielding a bachelor's degree in English, strives to create a world of fantasy amidst the ever-changing landscape of military life. Attempting to become a writer, she fuels herself with coffee (working as a barista) and music (spending free time as a raver).