Antarctic glaciers: melting from below | Photo: Geomar: melting from below | Photo: Geomar

Scientists at the Geomar Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel have concluded that water temperatures on the West Antarctic shelf are rising predominantly due to warm water from greater depths.

Data collected by the German marine researchers, alongside colleagues of the University of East Anglia, the California Institute of Technology and the University of Hokkaido (Japan), confirms that these events will accelerate the glacier melt from below and trigger the sliding of big glaciers.

"If the water continues to warm, the increased penetration of warmer water masses onto the shelf will likely further accelerate this process, with an impact on the rate of global sea level rise," explains Professor Karen Heywood from the University of East Anglia.

The Antarctic ice sheet is a giant water reservoir. The ice cap on the southern continent is on average 2,100 meters thick and contains about 70 percent of the world's fresh water. If this ice mass were to melt completely, it could raise the global sea level by 60 meters.

"There are many large glaciers in the area. The elevated temperatures have accelerated the melting and sliding of these glaciers in recent decades, and there are no indications that this trend is changing," adds lead author of the study, Dr. Sunke Schmidtko from Geomar.

The exact reasons for the increase of the heating and the rising of warm water masses has not yet been completely resolved. "We suspect that they are related to large-scale variations in wind systems over the southern hemisphere. But which processes specifically play a role must be evaluated in more detail," the scientist concludes.