The results demonstrate the crucial need to better understand melting processes underneath massive glaciers, including how this undersea process will affect global sea-level rise in the future.
"Intensive melting under the Pine Island ice shelf, as observed in our study, could potentially lead to the speed up and ultimate break-up of the ice shelf," David Holland, a professor of mathematics at the Center for Atmosphere Ocean Science at New York University, said in a statement. "That's important, as this ice shelf is currently holding back inland ice, and without that restraining force, the Pine Island catchment basin could further contribute to global sea-level rise."
The Pine Island Glacier currently acts as a plug that holds back the immense West Antarctic Ice Sheet, whose melting ice contributes to rising sea levels. If the glacier's seaward flow speeds up, there could be global consequences.
As glaciers melt, the water flows down slopes and empties into the ocean, causing sea levels to rise. Warming oceans also cause sea levels to go up, because water expands as its temperature increases. Still, understanding precisely why these changes are occurring, and how much sea levels are projected to rise in the future, is tricky, researchers have said.