Researchers have long assumed that, despite all the other horrible things climate change is doing to the planet, the ice shelf of East Antarctica was immune. After all, it’s a giant chunk of ice, right? Pretty tough to melt. Except now we’re discovering that’s not true, and it might be a big, big problem.
Scientists have known for a while that meltwater lakes on the Greenland ice sheet speed up the collapse of that glacier. Scientists even found a “plumbing system” in Greenland that both speeds up the movement of the ice falling into the ocean and cracks it, exposing more surface area to melt. In other words, if you see a bunch of lakes on a huge piece of ice, it means that piece of ice is melting, and that melting process is likely to only accelerate.
So, yes, the fact that East Antarctica has suddenly become dotted with thousands of meltwater lakes is really, really bad news. It means that the ice shelf is melting, and that process might be further along than scientists realized. Furthermore, as everybody assumed that East Antarctica would be fine, nobody’s bothered to research what might happen if it starts melting. It could be a minor problem, or it could be a total ecological disaster. We don’t know! But it looks like, unless something changes quickly, that we’re going to find out.