Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

1 minute read

Here's An Idea

What Antarctica Looks Like Under All That Ice

Stripping away its protective ice coating isn’t just a fun exercise: The topography under the surface will affect how and when all that ice melts and starts flooding our cities.

What Antarctica Looks Like Under All That Ice

For years, climate scientists have tried to hammer home the point that changes in temperature and the volume of ice at the north and south poles can have major effects on the global climate and ocean levels. (That’s why it’s so significant, and scary, that Arctic ice levels hit record lows in the fall.)

But it’s hard to figure out exactly how the Arctic or the Antarctic, in particular, will react to climate change, since much of their terrain, shrouded in ice, is an unknown. Factors like ice thickness or the shape of the rock beneath the ice, can be difficult to measure or account for.

Antarctica, for example, contains more than half of the world’s fresh water, and could have a serious impact on rising sea levels were that ice to melt. But without knowing the thickness of the ice or the shape of the topography, it’s difficult to approximate what exactly will happen as temperatures increase.

"Ice sheets grow because of snow, and like honey poured on a plate, spread outward and thin due to their own weight," NASA ice sheet scientist Sophie Nowicki said in a statement. "The shape of the bed is the most important unknown, and affect how ice can flow. You can influence how honey spreads on your plate, by simply varying how you hold your plate."

However, a new study, led by the British Antartcitc Survey, includes the most accurate representation of the bedrock beneath the ice to date.

The statement continues:

Knowing what the bedrock looks like is important for ice sheet modeling because features in the bed control the ice’s shape and affect how it moves. Ice will flow faster on a downhill slope, while an uphill slope or bumpy terrain can slow an ice sheet down or even hold it in place temporarily.

The project is called Bedmap2 and builds on decades of data collection and measurements, many of which are gathered via satellite and aircraft missions. The new bedrock data, which will made available to researchers for free, will enable scientists to make much more realistic model of how a changing Antarctic will affect climate change and rising ocean levels. So, now we can look forward to apocalyptic warnings that are more specific than ever.