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Ocean forcing of glacier retreat in the western Antarctic Peninsula

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Science  15 Jul 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6296, pp. 283-286
DOI: 10.1126/science.aae0017

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The heat is on

Rising surface air temperatures are understood to cause glacial melting, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the ocean also has a strong impact. Cook et al. studied glaciers that drain the Antarctic Peninsula and found a strong correlation between mid-depth ocean temperatures and glacier-front changes along the peninsula's western coastline. Glaciers in the south, which are exposed to warmer waters, have undergone significant retreat, while those in the northwest, which terminate in cooler waters, have not retreated as much or as uniformly. Thus, ocean-induced melting appears to be the main cause of glacial retreat in the region.

Science, this issue p. 283

Abstract

In recent decades, hundreds of glaciers draining the Antarctic Peninsula (63° to 70°S) have undergone systematic and progressive change. These changes are widely attributed to rapid increases in regional surface air temperature, but it is now clear that this cannot be the sole driver. Here, we identify a strong correspondence between mid-depth ocean temperatures and glacier-front changes along the ~1000-kilometer western coastline. In the south, glaciers that terminate in warm Circumpolar Deep Water have undergone considerable retreat, whereas those in the far northwest, which terminate in cooler waters, have not. Furthermore, a mid-ocean warming since the 1990s in the south is coincident with widespread acceleration of glacier retreat. We conclude that changes in ocean-induced melting are the primary cause of retreat for glaciers in this region.

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