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New radar technology captures data. Antarctic glaciers are melting at a rate never seen before


A researcher warns that unprecedented mass loss from three Antarctic glaciers might herald global climate danger ahead. An innovative remote imaging equipment is being used by a worldwide partnership to photograph the Pope, Smith, and Kohler glaciers with clarity and completeness never seen before.

Three glaciers at the South Pole are being studied with degrees of clarity and completeness never seen before in a new University of Houston research employing an innovative remote imaging method known as synthetic aperture radar interferometry. The new remote sensing data system is not only revealing cold secrets from Earth’s least studied continent, but it is also raising concerns about current and future global climate dangers.

An report published in Nature Geosciences details the fast and unexpected retreat of the Pope, Smith, and Kohler glaciers in West Antarctica’s Amundsen Sea Embayment.

“Thanks to a new generation of radar satellites, we’ve been able to detect glacier retreat rates quicker than we’ve ever seen before in recent years. That’s a clue that things aren’t settling down, or even stabilizing. This might have serious consequences for the whole glacier system in this area’s equilibrium “Pietro Milillo, an assistant professor of civil engineering at UH and the article’s principal author, is a radar scientist.

Milillo is joined by University of California Irvine researchers and scientists from three national space agencies in a continuing worldwide investigation of data obtained by the TanDEM-X and COSMO-SkyMed satellites: NASA, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and the Italian Space Agency (ASI).

The study team intends to apply what they’ve learned about the Pope, Smith, and Kohler glaciers to their larger and more vulnerable West Antarctica neighbors, the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, as well as the whole Antarctic glacier system.

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“The difficulty here is that we discovered such a high retreat rate — so high that we believe these three smaller glaciers might possibly take the basin from the adjacent Thwaites glacier, causing Thwaites to lose even more mass,” Milillo said. “Because of the sun’s interaction with the glaciers in Antarctica, they do not melt. They melt because they speed up and add to the amount of ice in the ocean. One of the main processes of mass loss is this.”

The South Pole, at the furthest point on the planet, is dark for the majority of the year. Due of the harsh weather, researchers may only come for brief periods of time, which limits their study. (As Milillo points out, Antarctica is so far away that the closest people are usually astronauts on the International Space Station circling the planet.)

“For certain purposes, radar is ideal. Radar has the advantage of being able to pierce clouds. It can look good in any weather. It’s also an active sensor, which means we don’t have to depend on sunlight “he said

“In the past, we had to wait many years for enough valuable data to collect. As a result, we could only see long-term patterns. We can now examine retreats on a monthly basis, capturing a new level of information that will benefit in the improvement of glacier models and, as a result, the refinement of our sea level rise estimations “Milillo said.

The team examines bi-weekly elevation changes to determine retreat at a glacier’s grounding line, the border on the underside of a glacier where frozen land meets warmer water, as part of the monthly measurements. Because the warm water carves out an ice shelf that begins to float and might easily break away, the grounding line becomes more susceptible.

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“If all of Antarctica’s ice above flotation melted, the sea level would rise by an average of 58 meters (190 feet),” Milillo added. “The mass loss from Antarctica and Greenland will increase if the indications we’re looking at are verified. The sea level will rise as they climb.”

“If all of these glaciers melt, sea levels might rise dramatically. An sudden migration might occur since 267 million people live on terrain that is less than 2 meters (6.6 feet) above sea level. Subsidence might also result in huge constructions sinking in sensitive areas, such as Houston “Milillo said. “This is why people should be concerned about the situation. Even if it has no effect on them, it will have an impact on their children and grandchildren.”

For the time being, Milillo is focused on the near future, especially NASA’s plans to deploy its NISAR satellite in 2023, which will offer even more data and more often than the present state-of-the-art synthetic aperture radar. The satellite, also known as NASA-ISRO SAR, will track changes in ecosystems, dynamic surfaces, and ice masses, giving Milillo and his colleagues a clearer image of our changing planet.

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