Uncovering the footprint of former ice streams off Antarctica


  • COHIMAR/SEDANO Scientific Party


Antarctic ice sheets and ice caps have been expanding and contracting following global climatic cycles. The last time the Antarctic ice cover peaked, at least in Western Antarctica, was ca. 21 ky ago during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). The strong warming (nearly 2.8°C) over the past 50 years, and the yearly recent collapse of limited portions (hundreds to a few thousands of square miles per event) of ice shelves around the Antarctic Peninsula have brought to the headlines the debate about the potential collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) in the near future under the influence of global warming.

Such a catastrophe would substantially contribute to global sea level rise (a resulting 5 m increase is expected); alter water mass conditions, circulation, and productivity around Antarctica and in the world ocean; and modify the Earth's climate.The economic,social, and ecological impacts of these changes would depend greatly on the rate at which they might take place [Bindschadler, 1998” . A detailed knowledge of the past extent of ice sheets and the timing of their advances and retreats thus becomes essential to quantify the rates of change and to properly assess the future stability of the WAIS and nearby ice caps. The stability of ice sheets is largely dependent on ice drainage, which mostly occurs via ice streaming along glacial troughs. Ice streams are thus a key element to solve the puzzle linking ice sheet stability, sea level rise, and climate change at a global scale.