Why is Antarctica's Totten Glacier shrinking faster than its neighbors?

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Figuring out what causes glaciers to shrink is important because melting glaciers are one of the factors behind rising sea levels.

So when scientists noticed a massive glacier in East Antarctic was thinning faster than its neighbors, it became a hot topic of research.

Ala Khazendar is a scientist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and he recently co-authored a paper on this chunk of ice named Totten Glacier.

His team looked at data from 2003 to 2009 showing Totten was shrinking faster than any other glacier in the region. In one area the ice was reducing by as much as 1.7 meters a year. 

"Which is a lot," Khazendar said.

To help solve the mystery of the incredible shrinking glacier, Khazendar and his team used to computer models and satellite data to study the region.

Blowing in the wind

The researchers found that changes in icy Antarctic wind patterns might be partially responsible for Totten's rapid thinning.

Khazendar says normally, during the winter months, cold winds blow openings in the sea ice around Totten glacier. Khazendar says these openings expose the ocean water to the freezing air.

"Which means that the ocean will continue losing heat to the atmosphere."
This allows those icy winds to cool off the normally warmer ocean water. That frigid water then sinks to the base of the glacier, creating pockets of near freezing water that keep things from melting too fast.

Khazendar theorizes that one reason Totten Glacier might be melting so fast is because fewer of these opening are forming in the sea ice.

Shifting wind patterns could be to blame, but he says other factors are likely involved as well.

"This is just an example of how much more we still have to work out and understand."

What's in a name?

Totten Glacier was named for U.S. Navy midshipman George M. Totten who served  on board the USS Vincennes under the command of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. 

The Vincennes was the first US warship to circumnavigate the globe. It visited Antarctica in 1839.


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