In a bid to track future sea-level increases from climate change, researchers at NASA have come out with the first complete map of the speed and direction of ice flow in Antarctica.


First complete map of the speed and direction of ice flow in Antarctica, derived from radar interferometric data. Credit. NASA/JPL

The map, which was created by using integrated radar observations from a grouping of international satellites, shows glaciers flowing thousands of miles from the continent's deep interior to its shore.

NASA-funded researchers at the University of California (UC), Irvine, used billions of high-resolution radar data points of the continent's ice flows provided by European, Japanese and Canadian satellites between 2007 and 2009 to extract the clouds, solar glare and land features covering the glaciers.

The researcher's team, with the help of NASA technology, carefully joined the shape and velocity of glacial formations. The map even includes Eastern Antarctica - an area that, while comprising 77 percent of the continent, was uncharted so far.

When scientists looked at the full picture, they were surprised to see that a new ridge splitting the 5.4 million-square-mile (14 million-square-kilometer) landmass from east to west. They also discovered unidentified formations that slide along the Antarctic plains up to 800 feet a year.

This is like seeing a map of all the oceans' currents for the first time. It's a game changer for glaciology, said Eric Rignot of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and the University of California (UC), Irvine. We are seeing amazing flows from the heart of the continent that had never been described before.

Researchers said that ice flows through these glaciers at an average of about 100 feet (30 meters) per year, and it's the ice sheets sliding on their rocky beds that cause the flow.

The map points out something fundamentally new: that ice moves by slipping along the ground it rests on, said Thomas Wagner, NASA's cryospheric program scientist in Washington. That's critical knowledge for predicting future sea level rise. It means that if we lose ice at the coasts from the warming ocean, we open the tap to massive amounts of ice in the interior.

The map has been created in collaboration with the IPY Space Task Group, which included NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the Alaska Satellite Facility in Fairbanks, and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates of Richmond, British Columbia, Canada.

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