Among several continents, Antarctica is the one that remains colder throughout the year. It is inferred as the largest and the coldest continent in terms of the ice sheets all across the globe. 

Antarctica covers roughly 98% of the ice sheets, with the mesmerizing beauty of the ice sheets all over the continent. 

Antarctic glaciers entail pieces of the floating ice sheets, over 4000 m in thickness. Antarctica contributes almost 90 % of the glacier ice worldwide. 

Besides that, it includes several glaciers such as valley glaciers, outlet glaciers, cirque glaciers, and tidewater glaciers. 

History of Antarctic glaciers

View of Collins Glacier in Antarctica
View of Collins Glacier in Antarctica | Image Credit – Flickr

The history of the glaciers in Antarctica formed approximately 35 million years ago when the climates got cooled.

Since Antarctica is isolated from the heat transfer from the northern side, the area or the whole continent remains coolest compared to other continents. 

In the past of Antarctica, there was the massive occurrence of the LGM (Last Glacial Maximum) ice which reflects the amount of the glaciers being present. 

Several archives have been identified so far, which provide terrestrial evidence that the source of the LGM ice was from Antarctica. 

These entail ice thickness and the ice movement at the glacial maximum, raised beaches (fingerprinting of the ice volumes), directional land evidence, lithostratigraphic data, and much more. 

The marine geological evidence for the ice extent includes sediment cover, submarine valleys, sediment cores, glacial lineation, the seismic record having the high resolution, grounding zone wedges, and moraine ridges.

Formation of Antarctic glaciers

The Antarctic glacier forms through several phases. The cooling effect has a vital role in it. 

Once the cooling effect of the circumpolar current occurs, the glacier’s formation takes place in Antarctica. 

The critical factor responsible for the formation of the Antarctic glacier is the decrease in carbon dioxide to 600 ppm.

The glaciers are formed once the snow is prolonged for an extended period to be converted into ice. 

Factors influencing the Antarctic glaciers

Several factors have been identified that hugely influence the glacier’s formation in Antarctica. 

1. Snowfall alteration

Snowfall alteration
Snowfall alteration | Image Credit – Pixabay

The rate of the glacier ice flow does vary over time. The glacier in Antarctica melts gradually, and once the warming exceeds, it initiates to break the ice by melting the large blocks of the ice. 

It has detrimental effects on the plant’s primary production. There can be variation in the net productivity. 

Beside this, the habitat of the krill, fishes and the marine mammals like polar bear might lose upon change in the ice volume in Antarctica. 

Those who rely on the snow for thriving get severe hampers when the snowfall varies upon passing time. 

The decrease in snowfall could undoubtedly shrink the volume of the Antarctic glaciers. There can be negative influence in the runoff pattern of the glaciers in Antarctica. 

2. Air temperature

Once there is an increase in the temperature, sublimation gets exceeded to the new ice input. 

It could lead to the glaciers’ loss when the ice accumulation and the ablation occur between the equilibrium condition.

Ongoing urbanization and industrialization at a tremendous rate have increased the emission of Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

The amount of carbon dioxide and its associates emitted in the atmosphere may negatively affect the mass balance, even in Antarctic glaciers.

The temperature warming in Antarctica results in the negative mass balance across Antarctica, contributing to the net water transfer from the land ice meltwater that enters the seas or oceans.

The climate change-induced effects have contributed to massively losing the smaller ice shelves along the Antarctic Peninsula.

Significance of the Atlantic glaciers

1. Iron source

Iron source
Iron source | Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons

The research conducted by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) reveals that the glaciers are the most comprehensive source of iron to the North Atlantic Ocean. 

In the aquatic environment, iron, an essential element, contributed significantly to the massive growth of the planktons basically in both the spring and the summer season. 

We could not deny that the climate has been warming more and more in recent days. The iron quantity is likely to fade with the melting of the Greenland ice sheets.

2. A better understanding of the glaciers

Climate 101: Glaciers | Video Credit – National Geographic

The Antarctic glaciers have highly assisted in understanding the glaciers retreating and their spatial differences during the last deglaciation. 

It could be advantageous in detecting the past climates and the effects of climate change in the glaciers in Antarctica.

The current existing glaciers might be the source of information for scientists and climate researchers to acquire information regarding the flow rates of the mass of ice sheets and the situation of the glaciers during the interglacial.

It could make it easier to know how glaciers respond to the increase in warming. 

Additionally, it could predict the rate of Antarctic ice melting in the coming days once we use multiple climate modeling software and techniques with high resolution.

The ice cores of the Antarctic glaciers signify and provide records for the changes in the ice volume. 

For instance: the long Vostok record reveals a strong correlation with the global isotopic record. 

It infers the information that there is a good linkage between the ice sheets of the Northern and the Southern hemisphere.

Concerning the glacial history of Antarctica and its present occurrence, the ice cores samples could be tremendous evidence in knowing the current scenario of the flow rate of the ice sheets and the melting phenomena. 

Radiocarbon dating seems to be very substantial when we know the past climatic glaciers in Antarctica. 

The radiocarbon dating is carried out by taking the various samples in and around the Antarctic glaciers.

For instance: the ice cores from the glaciers, mosses from moss banks in the Antarctic Peninsula, bulk sediments, algal flakes from the Antarctic lakes, microbial mats, and many more. 

These samples could provide a vital clue in knowing the glaciological climate in the Antarctic region.

The uniqueness of the ice sheets is that it is likely related to the ocean currents and the Southwesterly winds that contribute widely in grabbing the information regarding the past climates.

Geographical or atmospheric phenomena of the Antarctic glaciers

Multiple atmospheric phenomena create an alteration in the glaciers existing in Antarctica. Below mentioned are some of the phenomena being described in brief:

1. Massive seas across the Drakes Passage

Massive seas across the Drakes Passage
Massive seas across the Drakes Passage | Image Credit – Flickr

In these areas, the circumpolar current is widespread. With the Antarctic wind’s aid, there is a westerly flow at the rate of approximately 140 million cubic meters of water per second.

It is regarded as four times the Gulf Stream size. It seems mandatory to transverse the water stretch at the right angles to the current flow, which is inferred as the roughest water stretch worldwide.

2. Solar halo

Solar halo
Solar halo | Image Credit – Flickr

There is light scattering by the ice particles in this atmospheric phenomenon, which gets suspended in the atmosphere. 

The phenomena of reflecting the ice crystals at the 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock positions are more common in the winter than in the summer. 

Because the lower temperatures likely occur during the winter season. Once the polar ice sheets move the glaciers, the solar halo pole moves every year since it drifts away from the exact location.

3. Cloud and Skies

The critical atmospheric phenomenon that we could visualize is the high flying skies once the sun is below the horizon.

4. Fohn Bank

In this natural phenomenon, the land gets covered by the gigantic duvet. Within the cloud layer, we could seek the gross contours. The winds in this phenomenon are drier and might cause snow or ice cover loss.

Biological effects of temperature rise in Antarctic glaciers

1. More water in the plants

Antarctic hair grass
Antarctic hair grass | Image Credit – Flickr

With the warming in the Peninsula, Deschampsia Antarctica, commonly known as Antarctic hair grass, are the dominant species. 

On the other hand, once the ice sheets melt, there is adequate water for the plants; instead, the plants are locked up in the ice crystals. 

It could undoubtedly make the plants available with more water than ice crystals. 

2. Species number and the nesting sites 

The number of Pygoscelis adeliae inferred by Adelie penguins is declining at an unprecedented rate. 

More troublingly, the nesting sites of the penguins are reducing so far. Pygoscelis Papua has replaced the nesting of the Pygoscelis adeliae on the Peninsula. The findings were supported by bones and remained in the penguin colonies.

Due to the global warming caused by climate change in the Antarctic Peninsula areas, Krill numbers have been reduced drastically. It is due to the reduction in sea ice in the winter temperature.

Because of the less ice sea in the winter, the colonies of Adelie penguins have been abandoned in recent days. 

The relocation of the Gentoo penguins has been dramatically affected since climate change has impacted their habitat and made them unsuitable for their existence. 

When the ice melts massively at the spatial scale, the breeding drastically impacts the Emperor penguins.

Thousands of the Adelie penguin chicks are converting into the graveyard due to the hunger resulting from the ice pack expansion in the ocean. 

The warmer the temperature in the glaciers, the more is the sea acidification which causes the coral bleaching at a massive amount. 

The marine flora has altered its flowering season due to the increase in the temperature as a primary cause of global warming.

All the impacts mentioned earlier, the unwanted changes result from anthropogenic-induced activities to the climate. 

Scientists believe that all the adverse outcomes we are striking are artificial changes rather than the natural changes in the Antarctic glaciers.

Impacts of the climate change effect (warming) in Antarctic glaciers

Impacts of the climate change effect (warming) in Antarctic glaciers
Impacts of the climate change effect (warming) in Antarctic glaciers | Image Credit – Pixabay

The water melting in the glaciers could have detrimental effects on the Antarctic glaciers since it negatively influences the biological systems, ocean circulation, and the sea level worldwide

The research estimates that from the western part of the Antarctic region, i.e., Pine Island, the sea level has been raised by approximately 5 meters. 

In the past century, the sea level rise was up to 1.4 meters, the data higher than in 2013. 

The 5th IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Assessment predicts that the global sea-level rise could rise by 2100.

The scientists have warned the public that if global warming continues at a tremendous rate, Antarctica could lead the sea level rise in the next century ranging from 0.15 meters to 0.4 meters and even reaching up to 1 meter. 

Such ranges could create stark differences in the climate forcing, time for the ice sheets to melt, and the physical process of the ice melting event. 

Apart from these, the sea level rise in the Antarctic glaciers relies on the Earth’s rotation, gravity effects, and ice loss in the Antarctic glaciers.

Current situation of Antarctica and the glaciers

Current situation of Antarctica and the glaciers
Current situation of Antarctica and the glaciers | Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons
  • Scientists from the study predicted that a small amount will increase in Antarctica’s temperature in the next 50 years. 
  • From 2010 to 2020, due to the temperature rise in Antarctica, the hottest temperature was recorded within that interval. 
  • In 2020 on 6th February, Antarctica recorded the highest temperature in the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula at the Esperanza station. It reflects how the warming has affected the Antarctic glaciers since it contributes hugely to the melting of the ice sheets at the massive level.
  • Within the last 50 years, around 87 % of the glaciers have retreated in the Western part of the Antarctic Ice sheet. Further research findings depicted that the sea ice trend of the Antarctic region has been almost flattened with a changing pattern in decrease and increase. 
  • Considering the Antarctic glaciers, the Antarctic Peninsula, basically on the west coast of the Peninsula, has become the victim of the temperature rise roughly ten times faster than the average rate worldwide. 
  • In this region, in the last 50 years, the annual temperature has increased by around 3oC.
  • The recent data of the Antarctic ice shelf, 2021, reveals that the Antarctic ice shelf will be failing heavily within five years. 
  • Once the ice shelf falls, it is estimated to speed the Thwaites Glaciers, resulting in the sea level rise that led to detrimental outcomes in thousands of residents in the coastal areas. 

Conclusion

The climate change impacts have added more to glacier melting in the Antarctic region. 

It has made scientists, researchers, and climate enthusiasts terrified that we won’t be able to strike the ice sheets floating in the oceans and the seas over the following decades.

The mesmerizing beauty of the Antarctic glacier is rapidly declining with the penguins. 

It has been very substantial to seek the attention in the Antarctic glaciers, as the glaciers have become the silent victim of anthropogenic-induced interventions.

That is why it seems of foremost necessity to preserve our glaciers from the climate change-induced crisis and let our future generations prioritize saving the Antarctic glaciers for us and our future generations.

Kalpana Ghimire holds a post-graduate degree in Environmental Science from Nepal. She possesses numerous research experiences working in water pollution, community forestry, environment conservation status, and wildlife ecology. She was an internee in the Department of Environment (EIA monitoring and auditing section) under the Government of Nepal. Kalpana Ghimire is an avid traveler, an enthusiastic wildlife researcher, and has a huge passion for working in the environment sector. She loves far traveling to the natural areas, conducting field wildlife research and reading the novels.