A New Climate Tipping Point Discovered in Antarctica: How Warm Water Spells Disaster

By: Stephanie Bontorin | Published: Jun 25, 2024

A recent discovery in Antarctica has scientists worried that the world has reached unprecedented levels of heating. Warm water has been sneaking in between large glaciers, causing land masses to separate.

The worrying new information comes at a time when global warming has hit its boiling point. Now, ground-based ice threatens the globe with massive weather events in the case of high levels of melting.

Ice Sheets Are Melting in New Ways

Until recently, it was thought that ice sheets melted from above. Warm air moving through the north and south poles heated glaciers and ice sheets on land and caused them to melt into oceans. But new information adds a level of fear to the growing climate emergency.

A close up of a large blue ice sheet in front of a large mountain range

Source: Micheal Mancewics/Unsplash

Scientists at the South Pole have just discovered that warm sea water laps against the underside of ground-based glaciers and ice, which causes them to melt and crack.

Who Made the Groundbreaking Discovery?

Researchers at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) built on previous research showing how warm ocean water can create large distances between ice sheets.

A large above ground blue shelter in Antarctica

Source: @fasc1nate/X

In recent months, the Thwaites Glacier, located on the western tip of Antarctica, caught the eye of universities and scientists involved with global warming research. It was discovered that the Thwaites pose an immediate threat if melting continues on the same trajectory.

Localized Melting Causes Massive Damage

The issue occurring around the southern continent shows that warm ocean water can infiltrate small cracks in ground ice and create large cracks.

A glacier meets the sea in Norway on foggy day

Source: Thatcher Clay/Wikimedia Commons

Researchers coined “localized melting” to show how calculated the cracks can become. The process lubricates the ice bed and influences how fast the ice can slide toward the sea.

Why Is This a Big Deal?

The issue with fracturing ice sheets comounds a growing issue with climate change. As more ice melts into the water, sea levels rise and cause massive weather events.

Several penguins sit on an ice sheet with a large red boat in the water behind them

Source: @welcometofife/X

However, the melting of ice isn’t the only issue now. When the ice sheets break off and land in the ocean, they also displace millions of gallons of water and contribute rapidly to the issue.

BAS Released a Statement on Their Findings

Alex Bradley, a lead study author and BAS ice dynamics researcher released a statement regarding the group’s troubling findings.

Four men wearing hardhats and high visibility vests stand on rocky shores next to a large boat

Source: @hmsprotector/X

He claims that, “Ice sheets are very sensitive to melting in their grounding zones. We find that grounding zone melting displays a ‘tipping point-like’ behaviour, where a very small change in ocean temperature can cause a very big increase in grounding zone melting, which would lead to a very big change in flow of the ice above it.”


Antarctica Was Thought To Be More Stable Than the North Pole

Until recent years, researchers and climate scientists were almost wholly obsessed with the melting occurring in the northern hemisphere.

A sea of broken up pieces of white ice with large mountains in the background

Source: @ChinaScience/X

In the Arctic, polar ice caps have contributed to roughly 150 billion tons of water added to the oceans yearly. In comparison, ice in the southern hemisphere was thought to be much more stable and immune to rising global temperatures. Between 1978 and 2015, only a small portion of Antarctic sea ice melted.


Notable Decline in Ice Shelfs in Recent Years

Unfortunately, the stability of southern ice sheets recently cracked. Antarctic sea ice suffered a notable decline in the past decade.

Several penguins stand on a small sheet of ice while one jumps into the ocean

Source: @CGMeifanZhang/X

The sea ice surrounding the south pole crashed to record low numbers. Now, on top of melting ice, scientists are faced with a growing trend of massive shelves of ice falling into the ocean and displacing even more water. The implications are dire for animal life, as they currently rely on a certain amount of ice to survive in the south.


Fears of a Global Heat Crisis

The globe is facing an extreme crisis in the coming years: heat. With the added water in the oceans and now ice shelves breaking off completely, heat and eroding shores stand to create some of the worst weather events in history.

A low sunset in a red and orange sky in front of low mountains

Source: Lucian/Unsplash

Many say that heat will be the silent killer, as it is often overlooked by many. However, experts think that this year’s hurricane season will be one of the worst on record, and coastal regions like the Gulf of Mexico or Miami will face the brunt of the force.


New Research Shows How Countries Will Change

The information presented by BAS has severe implications for other ice-covered places like the Arctic and Greenland.

A small sail boat moves next to a massive glacier in a dark ocean

Source: @TerraScenes/X

The north pole is expected to accelerate in ice melting soon, which will have detrimental effects on the planet. The changes will begin to affect people in all different climates and zones due to the constantly changing and aggressive weather patterns that warm water causes.


Assumptions of Sea Level Rise May Be off by Feet

This past month, massive floods in central and coastal Florida are a stark reminder that rising sea levels will affect more than just beaches and faraway places.

house in the flood

Source: Freepik

By 2070, Miami is expected to suffer dramatically from a foot of ocean rise. However, now that ice sheets and glaciers are melting at accelerated rates in the south pole, those numbers may be too conservative.


More Research Is Needed To Understand the Phenomenon

For now, the ice melting is occurring so far underground that researchers and scientists have no way to access a physical view of the phenomenon.

A large wall of blue ice with a small piece breaking off into the ocean

Source: Dominik Van Opdenbosch/Unsplash

The team with BAS says that they are going to need to create new hypothetical models to understand the underground melting.