Led by IMAS PhD student Alessandro Silvano and published in the journal Science Advances, the research found that Glacial meltwater makes the ocean’s surface layer less salty and more buoyant, preventing deep mixing in winter and allowing warm water at depth to retain its heat and further melt glaciers from below.
The study found that fresh meltwater also reduces the formation and sinking of dense water in some regions around Antarctica, slowing ocean circulation which takes up and stores heat and carbon dioxide.
“The cold glacial meltwaters flowing from the Antarctic cause a slowing of the currents which enable the ocean to draw down carbon dioxide and heat from the atmosphere.
Silvano said a similar mechanism has been proposed to explain rapid sea level rise of up to five metres per century at the end of the last glacial period around 15,000 years ago.
“Our study shows that this feedback process is not only possible but is in fact already underway, and may drive further acceleration of the rate of sea level rise in the future," Silvano said.
“Our results suggest that a further increase in the supply of glacial meltwater to the waters around the Antarctic shelf may trigger a transition from a cold regime to a warm regime, characterised by high rates of melting from the base of ice shelves and reduced formation of cold bottom waters that support ocean uptake of atmospheric heat and carbon dioxide,” Silvano said.
The study involved scientists from IMAS, ACE CRC, CSIRO, the Centre for Southern Hemisphere Oceans Research and the Antarctic Gateway Partnership, with support from IMOS and the Australian Antarctic Program, as well as Japanese scientists from the Hokkaido University and the National Institute of Polar Research.
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