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How, exactly, does warm ocean water erode an ice shelf? In a field study of an ice shelf at Pine Island, Antarctica, Stanton et al. (p. 1236) collected data from radar, seismic surveys, and oceanographic sensors inserted in holes bored through the ice shelf. The results show that localized, intensive melting occurs in a complex network of discreet channels that are formed on the underside of the shelf. This pattern of melting may limit the absolute rate of ice-shelf mass loss.
Ice shelves play a key role in the mass balance of the Antarctic ice sheets by buttressing their seaward-flowing outlet glaciers; however, they are exposed to the underlying ocean and may weaken if ocean thermal forcing increases. An expedition to the ice shelf of the remote Pine Island Glacier, a major outlet of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet that has rapidly thinned and accelerated in recent decades, has been completed. Observations from geophysical surveys and long-term oceanographic instruments deployed down bore holes into the ocean cavity reveal a buoyancy-driven boundary layer within a basal channel that melts the channel apex by 0.06 meter per day, with near-zero melt rates along the flanks of the channel. A complex pattern of such channels is visible throughout the Pine Island Glacier shelf.