Scientists studying the Totten Glacier in East Antarctica have concluded that vast regions of it are much more unstable than previously thought, prompting experts to warn of a huge rise in sea level as the Earth’s climate continues to warm, causing Totten to release a huge amount of water and cause sea levels around the world to rise by as much as 2.9 metres.
“We now know how the ice sheet evolves over the landscape in East Antarctica and where it is susceptible to rapid retreat, which gives us insight into what is likely to happen in the years ahead,” says co-author Donald D. Blankenship, Senior Research Scientist at the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics.
In a study published by the journal Nature researchers were able to uncover Totten’s past history of advances and retreats and found evidence of warm water moving underneath a floating portion of the glacier, causing unexpected melting and indicating that the glacier is capable of retreating up to 300 kilometres inland from its current front along the eastern coast of Antarctica.
Using airborne geophysical surveys to analyze the sedimentary rocks below Totten, the research team was able to piece together the glacier’s movement going back millions of years.
“Several lines of evidence suggest possible collapse of the Totten Glacier into interior basins during past warm periods, most notably the Pliocene epoch, causing several metres of sea-level rise,” say the authors.
The current full retreat could take a couple of centuries to complete, but once the trend begins it won’t stop until the glacier becomes stable again -and vast amounts of water are released into the surrounding ocean. The Totten Glacier measures approximately 90 by 22 miles, but is currently losing a volume equivalent to a hundred times the volume of Sydney Harbour each year.
“The evidence coming together is painting a picture of East Antarctica being much more vulnerable to a warming environment than we thought,” says co-author Martin Siegert of the Imperial College London. “This is something we should worry about.”
Meanwhile in Canada, Jennifer Cox, doctor of laws candidate at the University of Calgary, has recently put forward the case for giving Alberta’s glaciers legal status. In an article titled “Finding a Place for Glaciers within Environmental Law,” Cox argues that even though federal and provincial parks acts give a general protection to lands occupied by glaciers without specifically mentioning glaciers themselves, current Canadian and Albertan legislation are insufficient to cover glaciers. Nevertheless, precedent exists in other countries, such as Argentina’s National Glacier Act and Krygyzstan’s Glacier Law, both of which define liability for glacier damage and prohibit development on glaciers.
Cox contends that because glaciers have three important functions -they serve as vast stores of fresh water, they contribute to environmental and scientific study and they provide economic value via tourism and scientific development- they therefore deserve legal protection.
“Alberta should look to create legislation that is aimed directly at glaciers and that encompasses their threefold purposes,” says Cox. “Is there a right to glaciers? Who gets priority to the water in glaciers? Who is liable when there is damage to glaciers? These questions are particularly important as Alberta looks towards a future with far fewer glaciers, and thus with far less water in the freshwater system,” she adds.