Using data culled from more than 50,000,000 laser measurements, scientists have assembled a picture of the rapidly thinning glaciers along the coastline of both the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. The findings provide valuable information that will improve the accuracy of predictions for future sea level rise due to global warming.

In the study, published in the prestigious journal Nature, researchers from British Antarctic Survey and the University of Bristol discovered that ice sheets are thinning, and the most profound thinning is occurring at the coastal areas where glaciers are calving into the sea at a rate much faster than previously anticipated. This thinning occurs at all latitudes in Greenland, and it has intensified in key areas in Antarctica. Interestingly, water temperatures — not air temperatures — have been driving the dramatic losses of ice.

Lead author Dr. Hamish Pritchard from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) says, “We were surprised to see such a strong pattern of thinning glaciers across such large areas of coastline — it’s widespread and in some cases thinning extends hundreds of kilometers inland. We think that warm ocean currents reaching the coast and melting the glacier front is the most likely cause of faster glacier flow. This kind of ice loss is so poorly understood that it remains the most unpredictable part of future sea level rise.” (Source: Science Daily, September 23, 2009)

Contact: Dr. Hamish Pritchard, Glacial Processes, Satellites, Physical Sciences Division, British Antarctic Survey, +44 (0) 122 322-1293, www.antarctica.ac.uk