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Jesse Allen/NASA Earth Observatory

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

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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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NASA/Nathan Kurtz
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New Images of the Massive Iceberg That Broke Off From Antarctica This Summer
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NASA/Nathan Kurtz

This summer, a massive crack finally broke apart Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf, creating one of the world’s largest icebergs, called A-68. NASA has taken plenty of satellite images of the area, but now, thanks to flights by the agency’s Operation IceBridge, we have close-ups too, as The Washington Post reports.

Operation IceBridge is NASA’s project to survey and map the status of polar ice via plane. The project is running several survey missions out of Argentina and from scientific bases at the South Pole this fall, using gravimeters, magnetometers, and other sensors to measure changes in polar ice. They have taken a few flights so far that passed over Larsen C, the most recent leaving from Ushuaia, Argentina, on November 12.

The sheer edge of A-68 leads into blue ocean
The edge of A-68
NASA/Nathan Kurtz

Aerial IceBridge photos taken in the last few weeks show the massive size of the ice shelf and the iceberg it calved this summer. "Most icebergs I have seen appear relatively small and blocky, and the entire part of the berg that rises above the ocean surface is visible at once,” Kathryn Hansen, a member of NASA’s news team, wrote on NASA’s Earth Observatory blog after seeing A-68 for herself on the most recent IceBridge flight. “Not this berg. A-68 is so expansive it appears [as] if it were still part of the ice shelf.”

NASA tweeted out these incredible images from IceBridge's October 31 flight earlier this month.

An aerial photo of an ice shelf and the iceberg it calved
The ice on the left is the Larsen C ice shelf; the right, the western edge of A-68.
NASA/Nathan Kurtz

An aerial view of sea ice, blue water, and the edge of iceberg A68
A view across sea ice toward A-68
NASA/Nathan Kurtz

The November 12 flight was aimed at mapping the bedrock below the polar ice with NASA’s gravimeter, but the scientists still have more research planned. Additional IceBridge flights will be leaving from Antarctica later this month, collecting data with different instruments than the flights that left out of Argentina.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation
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9 Secrets of Antarctic Scientists
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A scientist monitors one of the world's largest Adélie penguin colonies near Cape Crozier, Antarctica.
Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and sometimes the darkest place on Earth. And yet hundreds of people go there each year to conduct scientific research and work as support staff at dozens of stations scattered across the continent. In summer, the high season for polar activity, the sun never sets, offering scientists and support teams an opportunity to play soccer on the ice or sunbathe in blinding, cloud-free rays. Winter envelops the land in frigid darkness—and inspires the few "winter-overs" to indulge in naked footraces around the station. Mental Floss spoke to a few Antarctic scientists about what it's really like to carry out research there, including the hacks that help them survive the elements.

1. THEY LEARN ON THE FLY.

Scientists participating in the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), which runs all of the American research and operations on the continent, go through an introductory briefing about living and working at the three American stations: McMurdo, the largest, which is located on Ross Island; Palmer, on Anvers Island off the Antarctica Peninsula; and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

But with so many complex protocols needed for daily life, new arrivals often find themselves on a steep learning curve. "There's no manual for a lot of things," Michelle LaRue, an ecologist who studies Adélie and emperor penguins and seals in the Southern Ocean and is often based at McMurdo, tells Mental Floss. "There are appointments for everything—food, field supplies, et cetera—and you need a certain amount of lead time before you get into the field. I quickly learned that even though you think you're ready, there's something else you're missing. Thankfully the support crew there is amazing. I don't know what we would have done without them."

2. THEY HAVE TO PACK CAREFULLY.

Gathering everything for an extended mission can be tricky if you can't depend on regular resupply shipments. "Packing for 18 months away is a total nightmare. Ever tried to work out how many tampons you might need for that long? Or conditioner?" ecologist Jess Walkup tells Mental Floss. Walkup began her career with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) studying albatrosses on South Georgia and is now the base commander at the BAS's Rothera station leading the 2018 wintering team.

"I ran out of anti-perspirant on one trip, and that was awful," she says. "Thankfully I was on an island with just three men and thousands of stinky seals, so no one seemed to notice."

3. THEY HACK THEIR CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS.

Scientists and support staff who serve in the Antarctic summer, from October through March, often contend with round-the-clock daylight. Many bring eye masks and blackout curtains so they can retain their regular sleep-wake schedule—but it's tempting to want to stay up. "After working all day, all I want to do is catch up with friends or go hiking. Time gets away from you pretty quickly, and before you know it, you're going to bed way later than you should," LaRue says.

The Antarctic winter, however, is another matter. The sun doesn't rise for several months, leaving the entire continent in extreme darkness (except for the twinkling of stars and the aurora australis). "I found that I was shattered all day and then slept badly at night," Walkup says. "In the early afternoon I would have a massive slump and feel like it was 3 a.m. and I had been awake for a week." She adjusted by using a SAD lamp on her desk and getting into a routine of winding down and going to bed at the same time each night. On the base, she says, "Your bed is one of the only places you can get some time alone."

4. THEY HAVE STRANGE TASTES IN MOVIES.

The Milky Way and aurora australis over the South Pole
The Milky Way and aurora australis illuminate the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in winter.
Patrick Cullis, National Science Foundation

It's not all work and no play for Antarctic scientists and staff. The isolation and rough conditions create a sense of camaraderie that is celebrated at certain times of the year. To mark Midwinter's Day in the middle of June (the point when the sun begins its return back south), the BAS bases, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and many others watch The Thing ("the original, obviously!" Walkup says). In John Carpenter's 1982 horror film, a parasitic alien invades an Antarctic base and steadily takes over the minds of the researchers stationed there, with much gore, violence, and paranoia. Winter-overs also watch the 1980 classic The Shining, a similarly chilly flick featuring an unhealthy dose of insanity.

In August, many of the Antarctic stations compete in the 48-Hour Winter Film Festival, in which teams submit short films that contain five key elements and are made in less than 48 hours. "We then watch all the submissions and vote on the winners under various categories, like at the Oscars. It’s a great way to learn about the international Antarctic community and see the inside of other stations," Walkup says. (Watch a selection from the 2016 festival on Vimeo).

5. THEY MAKE TIME TO PARTY.

Sure, scientists spend many hours tracking neutrinos, conducting wildlife surveys, collecting ice cores, and fulfilling other objectives. But when they're off the clock, they like to kick back. "Depending on the time of year, there's all kinds of iconic parties and events to attend: Halloween, Thanksgiving dinner, the marathon, talent shows, the film festival, IceStock—that's an outdoor concert on New Year's Eve. If you're in McMurdo over New Year's Eve, you have to go to IceStock," LaRue says.

However, some of the games and competitions might seem fatalistic to those with a greater array of entertainment options. For example, when the temperature drops to -50°C (-58°F), scientists and staff strip naked and run around their stations' perimeters, Walkup reports.

Even that's not as crazy as vying for membership in the 300 Club. When the temperature drops to -100°F at the South Pole station, daredevils first warm up in a 200°F sauna, then dash outside (naked, of course) to the spot marking the Geographic South Pole several yards away, then run shrieking back into the sauna—having experienced a 300-degree range in temperature in just a few minutes.

The activities don't just keep boredom at bay; they actually ward off the lethargic, depressive state one gets from living in extreme isolation, which the winter-overs call "toast." As Sven Lidström, a Swedish engineer who helped build the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory, wrote in a 2012 blog post, "the cure for winter-over toastiness is fun and entertainment."

6. THEY START CRAVING SALAD …

McMurdo Station in Antarctica
McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Elaine Hood, National Science Foundation

According to Jason C. Anthony, author of Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, much of the culinary history of the southern continent consists of "isolated, insulated people eating either prepackaged expedition food or butchered sea life." Now, 21st-century scientists chow down on three freshly prepared meals a day at McMurdo and other stations. "Of the five seasons I spent in, or worked out of, McMurdo, I only really remember one where freshies"—local slang for any kind of fresh produce—"were in noticeably short supply," LaRue says.

But scientists and staff still have to cope with the lack of some favorite foods—and those whose fitness for eating is debatable.

"We only really get two deliveries of fresh food a year, one around December and then again around March. All our milk is powdered, and I got used to that very quickly. Some people hate it, but in a cup of tea or a bowl of cereal, I don’t really notice. I wouldn’t drink a glass of it, though," Walkup says.

Walkup devised ways to test if months-old foods were still edible. "We were eating eggs nine months after they had been laid," she says. "Some eggs that look moldy on the outside, and even on the inside, are fine to eat. The trick is to break each egg into a cup to check that it is OK—i.e., doesn’t smell—before adding it to whatever you're making. If the eggs are starting to go, then this is vital—you don’t want to ruin your mixture with a bad egg."

They also get some surprising cravings. "The thing I missed was salad, as that doesn’t travel well," Walkup adds. "I was never a huge fan of salad before I went south, but now I love it."

7. … AND BOOZE.

No planes can fly supplies into the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for up to nine months of the year, because at temperatures below -50°C, the jet fuel freezes. That leaves the small group of winter-overs to their own devices. The company operating the station supplies the scientists and support teams with huge pallets of wine, beer, and spirits that give rise to a makeshift bar at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station dubbed Club 90 South. Phil Broughton, a health physicist who spent one long, dark winter there in the mid-aughts, was its de facto bartender.

He developed a protocol for distributing alcohol: serve enough to help the patrons get through the darkest weeks of winter, and then make sure that those who were completely plastered didn't go home. "The most dire danger in Antarctica is always failure to respect the absolutely lethal environment of Antarctica itself. I was far happier to serve until I could guide [the drinker] over to a couch to pass out than to see him stagger out into the -85°F night," Broughton wrote in a blog post.

Plenty of scientists carry in their favorite spirits, just in case their base runs out halfway through the season. Says LaRue, "Bringing scotch with you is a must."

8. SOMETIMES THEY ACTUALLY FEEL TOO WARM.

Scientists in the field have to wear layers upon layers of insulating clothing, bring more hand and foot warmers than they think they'll need, and stay active to avoid hypothermia. "I distinctly remember one snow machine trip back to town, where the wind was just whipping across our faces, my fingers were numb. It was really cold," LaRue says. "As soon as I parked the snow machine I got off and just ran as fast and as far as I could to warm up."

In the summer season, though, being bundled in Gore-Tex can make them too hot. The extremely dry climate prevents the chilly damp feeling of more temperate regions—and if the sun is shining, its rays bounce off the reflective ice and fry the researchers. "Sometimes you can get really warm and even work in shorts and a t-shirt," Walkup says. "At 79 degrees south it can be -10°C [14°F] in the height of summer, and the sun is really strong, so on a day with no wind it is warm enough to sunbathe—just don’t lay down in the snow."

9. THEY DON'T SEE POLAR BEARS.

Antarctica teems with wildlife: six species of penguins, six species of seal, countless seabirds, and majestic whales are the southern ocean's most charismatic fauna. Scientists won't see any mammals from that other pole, however. Says Walkup, "people always ask me if I have seen polar bears. I haven’t—they only live in the Arctic."

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