Scientists, using robotic kayaks, suggest that glaciers are melting underwater much faster than predicted

This rapid melting of the glaciers has an effect on the rest of the world and is contributing to sea-level rise.


According to a breakthrough study, scientists using robotic kayaks have discovered that the Tidewater glaciers, the massive rivers of ice that end in the ocean, maybe melting underwater much faster than previously thought.

The findings challenge the current frameworks for analysing ocean-glacier interactions. It also has implications for the rest of the world's tidewater glaciers, the rapid retreat of which is contributing to sea-level rise. The study was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The scientists at Rutgers surveyed the ocean in front of the 32 km long LeConte Glacier in Alaska. The seaborne robots made it possible for the first time to analyse plumes of meltwater, the water released when snow or ice melts, where glaciers meet the ocean. It is a dangerous area for ships because of ice calving — when falling slabs of ice that break from glaciers crash into the water and spawn huge waves.

 Scientists, using robotic kayaks, suggest that glaciers are melting underwater much faster than predicted

Representational image: Pixabay

According to lead author Rebecca Jackson, a physical oceanographer and assistant professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, "With the kayaks, we found a surprising signal of melting: Layers of concentrated meltwater intruding into the ocean that reveal the critical importance of a process typically neglected when modelling or estimating melt rates." Jackson led the study when she was at Oregon State University.

Two kinds of underwater melting occur near glaciers. Where freshwater discharge drains at the base of a glacier (from upstream melt on the glacier's surface), vigorous plumes result in discharge-driven melting. Away from these discharge outlets, the glacier melts directly into the ocean waters in a regime called ambient melting.

The study follows one published last year in the journal Science that measured glacier melt rates by pointing sonar at the LeConte Glacier from a distant ship. The researchers found melt rates far higher than expected but couldn't explain why. The new study found for the first time that ambient melting is a significant part of the underwater mix.

Before these studies, scientists had few direct measurements of melt rates for tidewater glaciers and had to rely on untested theory to get estimates and model ocean-glacier interactions.

The studies' results challenge those theories, and this work is a step toward a better understanding of submarine melt — a process that must be better represented in the next generation of global models that evaluate sea-level rise and its impacts.

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