Jesse Allen/NASA Earth Observatory
Jesse Allen/NASA Earth Observatory

Antarctica Is Covered in Rivers, Lakes, and Waterfalls. That Might Not Be Good.

Jesse Allen/NASA Earth Observatory
Jesse Allen/NASA Earth Observatory

The floating ice shelves that buttress Antarctica are less icy than we thought, it turns out. They’re filled with flowing water. New research published in the scientific journal Nature maps the extensive network of meltwater from Antarctica's ice sheets and found that, contrary to previous understanding, lakes and rivers—even waterfalls—created by melting have been common for at least seven decades.

Two new papers analyze satellite imagery of Antarctica dating back to 1973 and aerial photography dating back to 1947 for evidence of meltwater. Warming oceans melt ice shelves around from the bottom up, while warming air temperatures melt them from the top down, creating pools and rivers of liquid water on the continent's surface.

Researchers found that over the last 70 years, a system of meltwater drainage has transported water from the continent of Antarctica across the floating ice shelves that surround it, traveling up to 75 miles and creating ponds up to 50 miles long.

This isn’t great news for the stability of the ice shelf. Water is heavy, and the weight can cause the ice below these lakes to crack. As glaciologist Alison Banwell wrote in a separate analysis of the studies for Nature, “If a lake suddenly drains through a crevasse to the ocean below, the load deficit from the ice shelf’s surface can induce more crevasses, potentially triggering a chain reaction” of draining lakes. “This process might have been responsible for the large-scale break-up of Antarctica’s Larsen B Ice Shelf in 2002, when more than 2000 lakes drained in just a few days.”

All that water ends up in the ocean, contributing to rising sea levels. As NASA geophycisist Ala Khazendar told NPR in January, "Ice shelves are very important. They are the gates of Antarctica in a way, and the gatekeepers of Antarctica." The National Snow and Ice Center estimates that if the Antarctic Ice Shelf—which covers 98 percent of the continent—melted, sea levels would rise by as much as 200 feet.

All that makes meltwater a little worrisome for climate scientists, but there may be a silver lining, at least according to one of the published papers.

One river network the researchers studied ends in a 427-foot-wide waterfall that can empty the entire amount of meltwater produced by the ice shelf annually in just seven days. That may make the ice shelf more stable, since the meltwater gets funneled into the ocean immediately instead of building up on top of the ice shelf and cracking the ice below. “Export of meltwater by surface rivers may buffer the impact of warming temperatures,” the researchers wrote. At least when it comes to breaking up ice sheets. Unfortunately, those drainage systems are still really effective at sloughing off water into the ocean, which will still affect sea level rise.

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Employees at Antarctica's McMurdo Station Are Throwing a Party for Pride Month
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Employees at Antarctica's McMurdo Station are gearing up to celebrate Pride month in one of the world's harshest environments. On Saturday, June 9, the station will host what Hannah Valian, who deals with the center's recycling efforts, calls "one of the larger parties ever thrown" at the station.

McMurdo Station is an Antarctic research facility owned and operated by the United States. The station is more sparsely populated during Antarctica's colder autumn and winter seasons (which run from March to September), but employees tell us there's still a decent-sized LGBTQ scene to celebrate this June.

About 10 of the 133 people currently at McMurdo identify as LGBTQ, says Rachel Bowens-Rubin, a station laboratory assistant. Valian said the idea for a Pride celebration came up in May at one of the station's regular LGBTQ socials.

"Everyone got really excited about it," she tells Mental Floss via email. "So we ran with it."

Ten individuals are wearing coats while holding a rainbow-colored Pride flag. They are standing in snow with mountains in the distance.
"I hope when people see this photo they'll be reminded that LGBTQ people aren't limited to a place, a culture, or a climate," McMurdo's Evan Townsend tells Mental Floss. "We are important and valuable members of every community, even at the bottom of the world."
Courtesy of Shawn Waldron

Despite reports that this is the continent's first Pride party, none of the event's organizers are convinced this is the first Pride celebration Antarctica has seen. Sous chef Zach Morgan tells us he's been attending LGBTQ socials at McMurdo since 2009.

"The notion is certainly not new here," he says.

To Evan Townsend, a steward at the station, this weekend's Pride event is less a milestone and more a reflection of the history of queer acceptance in Antarctica.

"If anything," Townsend says, "recognition belongs to those who came to Antarctica as open members of the LGBTQ community during much less welcoming times in the recent past."

This week, though, McMurdo's employees only had positive things to say about the station's acceptance of LGBTQ people.

"I have always felt like a valued member of the community here," Morgan tells us in an email. "Most people I've met here have been open and supportive. I've never felt the need to hide myself here, and that's one of the reasons I love working here."

Saturday's celebration will feature a dance floor, photo booth, lip sync battles, live music, and a short skit explaining the history of Pride, Valian says.

"At the very least, I hope the attention our Pride celebration has garnered has inspired someone to go out and explore the world, even if they might feel different or afraid they might not fit in," Morgan says. "'Cause even on the most inhospitable place on Earth, there's still people who will love and respect you no matter who you are."

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Scientists Have Discovered Massive Canyons Beneath Antarctica's Ice Sheets
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Scientists have been studying Antarctica for over a century, but details as basic as what it looks like beneath all that ice have largely remained a mystery. Now, Earther reports that a team of scientists from Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and the UK has published the most comprehensive data yet on the continent's subglacial topography near the South Pole.

As they report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters [PDF], central Antarctica is home to three massive canyons, one of which is deeper than the Grand Canyon and nearly as wide at some points. The researchers made the discovery by flying a plane with radar over the South Pole, a spot that isn't covered by imaging satellites. They expected to find mountains beneath the ice sheet, but the expansive chasms they detected between the mountains came as a surprise.

Of the three canyons, two hadn't been documented previously. The largest, the Foundation Trough, measures 218 miles long, up to 22 miles wide, and 6260 feet deep, putting it up there with the planet's most impressive canyons.

The discoveries are significant on their own, but the real purpose behind the research is to better understand how the West and East Antarctic Ice Sheets will react to rising temperatures. Human-induced climate change has destabilized some of the continent's ice, and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet especially has been slowly crumbling into the sea. If patterns continue, the coastal glaciers supporting the massive ice sheets could collapse, causing sea levels to rise a minimum of 10 feet. If this happens, the canyons could be a major factor in the speed and direction of ice flow from central Antarctica to the coast.

The event isn't likely to happen in the near future, but further study of Antarctica's topography will allow scientists to better predict when it might.

[h/t Earther]

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