A view of the Totten Glacier from RSV Aurora Australis in January 2015. (Australian Antarctic Division (Photo: Paul Brown, Australian Maritime College))
Scientists at institutions in the United States and Australia on Friday published a set of unprecedented ocean observations near the largest glacier of the largest ice sheet in the world: Totten glacier, East Antarctica. And the result was a troubling confirmation of what scientists already feared — Totten is melting from below.
The measurements, sampling ocean temperatures in seas over a kilometer (0.62 miles) deep in some places right at the edge of Totten glacier’s floating ice shelf, affirmed that warm ocean water is flowing in towards the glacier at the rate of 220,000 cubic meters per second.
These waters, the paper asserts, are causing the ice shelf to lose between 63 and 80 billion tons of its mass to the ocean per year, and to lose about 10 meters (32 feet) of thickness annually, a reduction that has been previously noted based on satellite measurements.
This matters because more of East Antarctica flows out towards the sea through the Totten glacier region than for any other glacier in the entirety of the East Antarctic ice sheet. Its entire “catchment,” or the region of ice that slowly flows outward through Totten glacier and its ice shelf, is larger than California. If all of this ice were to end up in the ocean somehow, seas would raise by about 11.5 feet.
"A little fill here and there may seem to be nothing to become excited about. But one fill, though comparatively inconsequential, may lead to another, and another, and before long a great body may be eaten away until it may no longer exist. Our navigable waters are a precious natural heritage, once gone, they disappear forever," wrote the Wisconsin Supreme Court in its 1960 opinion resolving Hixon v. PSC and buttressing The Public Trust Doctrine, Article IX of the Wisconsin State Constitution.