Home Science Environment Parts of Antarctica’s Ice Sheet Have Been Stable for Millions of Years

Parts of Antarctica’s Ice Sheet Have Been Stable for Millions of Years

Central parts of Antarctica’s ice sheet have been stable for millions of years, from a time when conditions were considerably warmer than now, research suggests. The study of mountains in West Antarctica will help scientists improve their predictions of how the region might respond to continuing climate change.

Its findings could also show how ice loss might contribute to sea level rise. Although the discovery demonstrates the long-term stability of some parts of Antarctica’s ice sheet, scientists remain concerned that ice at its coastline is vulnerable to rising temperatures.

Rock analysis

Researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Northumbria studied rocks on slopes of the Ellsworth Mountains, whose peaks protrude through the ice sheet.

By mapping and analysing surface rocks — including measuring their exposure to cosmic rays — researchers calculated that the mountains have been shaped by an ice sheet over a million-year period, beginning in a climate some 20°C warmer than at present.

The last time such climates existed in the mountains of Antarctica was 14 million years ago when vegetation grew in the mountains and beetles thrived. Antarctica’s climate at the time would have been similar to that of modern day Patagonia or Greenland. Dr. Andy HeinSchool of GeoSciences said in an statement:

Period of change

This time marked the start of a period of cooling and the growth of a large ice sheet that extended offshore around the Antarctic continent. Glaciers have subsequently cut deep into the landscape, leaving a high-tide mark — known as a trimline — in the exposed peaks of the Ellsworth range. The extended ice sheet cooled the oceans and atmosphere, helping form the world of today, researchers say.

Their study is among the first to find evidence for this period in West Antarctica. The research, published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, was done in collaboration with the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Center.

It was funded by the U.K. Natural Environment Research Council and supported by the British Antarctic Survey. Professor David SugdenSchool of GeoSciences said in a statement:

Provided by: The University of Edinburgh

[Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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