Article image

Antarctic ice shelves are melting faster due to ocean currents

The pristine world of Antarctica, a kingdom of ice and snow, is facing a hidden danger: ocean currents. Its massive ice shelves, those vast floating platforms of ice, are destabilizing at an alarming rate.

As they melt away, they threaten to unleash the glaciers held back behind them, leading to a catastrophic rise in global sea levels.

Ice shelves: Antarctica’s critical gatekeepers

Picture ice shelves as colossal frozen extensions of the Antarctic continent, floating out over the ocean. These shelves form when massive glaciers flow from the land and out onto the ocean surface. Their immense size and thickness allow them to buttress the glaciers behind them, slowing their flow.

This buttressing effect is critical; it regulates the pace at which ice from the interior of Antarctica reaches the ocean. If these ice shelves vanish or weaken significantly, the glaciers they hold back lose their restraint.

Consequently, the massive glaciers accelerate their flow into the ocean, resulting in a rise in global sea levels that will directly impact our coastlines.

The usual suspect: Wind

For years, scientists attributed the primary cause of Antarctic ice shelf melt to strong winds swirling around the Southern Ocean.

The prevailing theory posited that these winds generated ocean currents capable of transporting warm water towards the underside of the ice shelves.

This warm water would then interact with the ice, causing significant melting from below and weakening the overall structure of the shelves.

Ocean currents melt Antarctica’s ice shelves

A new discovery that challenges the long-held understanding of Antarctic ice shelf melt. It reveals that meandering ocean currents play a more significant role in the melting process than the previously emphasized role of winds.

The key finding lies in how these currents interact with the topography of the ocean floor. Variations in seabed shape influence the movement of ocean currents, causing them to twist and turn.

This complex movement can generate a force called ‘upwelling’ that pushes warmer water from deeper layers upwards towards the base of the ice shelves.

This warm water then erodes the ice shelves from below, a process that can be far more destructive than melting driven by wind-forced currents alone.

“The intensity and trajectory of ocean currents encircling the ice shelves directly govern the influx of warm water, thereby intricately shaping their rate of melting,” explained Taewook Park, Korea Polar Research Institute.

Effect of ocean currents melting Antarctica’s ice

The Antarctic holds enough ice to raise sea levels by a staggering 58 meters if it all melted by factors such as ocean currents.

While a complete meltdown is an extreme, worst-case scenario, even a much smaller rise would have devastating global consequences.

A sea level increase of just a few meters would displace millions of people living in low-lying coastal areas, inundating homes, infrastructure, and agricultural land.

Major cities and economic hubs around the world would face escalating risks of flooding, storm surges, and erosion.

The faster those ice shelves melt, the sooner this threat becomes a harsh reality, forcing difficult choices about adaptation and relocation for countless communities.

Study significance

This new discovery necessitates a reevaluation of our current understanding of the complex interactions between the Southern Ocean currents and the Antarctica ice sheet. Prior models primarily focused on wind patterns as the driver of ice shelf melt.

This new research highlights the crucial role of ocean currents and seabed topography in influencing the movement and upwelling of warm water towards the ice shelves.

Consequently, climate models used to predict future sea level rise will require significant adjustments to incorporate these newly discovered dynamics.

“Our findings challenge conventional wisdom,” explained Yoshihiro Nakayama from Hokkaido University.

By integrating this information, scientists can develop more accurate and nuanced projections of how much global sea levels might rise due to Antarctic ice melt.

“Our study underscores that the interplay between meandering ocean currents and the ocean floor generates upwelling velocity, bringing warm water to shallower depths. Subsequently, this warm water reaches the ice-ocean interface, accelerating ice shelf melting.” Nakayama explains.

“This internal oceanic process driving ice shelf melting introduces a novel concept. With this in mind, we have to reevaluate winds driving Antarctic ice loss, which can significantly impact future projections,” he concludes.

Key takeaway

The recent Antarctica’s ice shelf melt and currents research underscores the immense complexity and power of the ocean. Our understanding of its influence on Earth’s most sensitive regions, like Antarctica, is still evolving.

This discovery highlights a crucial point: climate change isn’t just a matter of rising air temperatures. It’s a cascade of interconnected effects that ripple throughout Earth’s various systems.

The ocean plays a far more significant role than previously thought, and its dynamic interactions with ice sheets and currents can have profound consequences for global sea levels.

As we delve deeper into climate science, it’s becoming increasingly clear that a holistic approach is necessary to understand the intricate web of cause and effect that drives environmental change on our planet.

More about ocean currents

As discussed above, ccean currents are like rivers flowing within the ocean, playing a crucial role in the global climate system and marine ecosystems.

They are complex movements of ocean water driven by a variety of factors, each contributing to the currents’ characteristics and effects such as Antarctica ice melt.

Here’s a more detailed look at what drives these currents, their types, and their impact on our planet:

Factors driving ocean currents

  • Wind: Surface currents, which make up about 10% of all the water in the ocean, are primarily driven by the wind. These currents are directly influenced by the pattern of the wind in the different Earth’s climate zones and can be swift and powerful, like the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic.
  • Coriolis effect: As the Earth rotates, it imparts a force known as the Coriolis effect, which causes currents to veer to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere. This effect is crucial in determining the direction of ocean currents.
  • Temperature and salinity: Variations in water density affect its movement. Cold, salty water is denser than warm, fresh water. This difference causes vertical movements—warmer water rises, and colder water sinks, creating a conveyor belt-like motion known as thermohaline circulation.
  • Tides and gravitational pull: Tidal currents are produced by the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun. These are more predictable and can create significant water movements, especially near coastlines.
  • Bathymetry: The topography of the ocean floor (bathymetry) can influence the flow of ocean currents. Underwater features such as continental shelves, ridges, and trenches can direct and channel ocean currents.

Types of ocean currents

  1. Surface currents: Surface currents primarily exist in the upper 400 meters of the ocean and wind mainly drives them. They follow the major wind belts of the world and the Coriolis effect also affects them.
  2. Deep water currents: Deep water currents are heavily influenced by water density. This density depends on temperature and salinity levels. Together, these factors create a global conveyor belt. This conveyor belt is crucial for regulating Earth’s climate as it distributes heat around the planet.

Impact of ocean currents beyond Antarctica’s ice melt

  • Climate regulation: Ocean currents distribute heat around the planet, thereby regulating weather and climate. For example, the Gulf Stream carries warm water from the Gulf of Mexico to the North Atlantic, making climates in Northern Europe milder.
  • Marine life: Currents carry nutrients and warm water, providing the basis for some of the world’s richest marine ecosystems. They also influence the migration patterns and distribution of marine life forms.
  • Navigation and human activity: Currents impact navigation routes for ships, especially in chokepoints like the Panama and Suez canals. Fishing industries and offshore operations are also influenced by current patterns.
  • Environmental impacts: Currents can carry pollutants, plastic debris, and organisms to different parts of the ocean, affecting marine ecosystems and biodiversity.

Understanding ocean currents is crucial for predicting weather patterns, studying climate change, and managing marine resources effectively. They are integral to the Earth’s system, influencing not just the oceans but the planetary environment as a whole.

The study is published in Nature Communications.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day