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South America’s glacier crisis

28 September 2009 3 Comments

The Pantagonian ice-fields of Chile and Argentina are melting faster than any other glaciers on Earth. They have lost 42 cubic kilometers of ice every year over the past seven years, which is equivalent to the size of ten thousand large football stadiums. They account for nearly 10 per cent of global sea-level change caused by mountain glaciers, according to a new study by NASA and Chile’s Centro de Estudios Cientificos, and the rate at which they are melting is accelerating.

The Amalia Glacier, South Patagonia, Chile

The Amalia Glacier, South Patagonia, Chile

Researchers Dr. Eric Rignot of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif and his team factor in the obvious answer of climate change but they are also considering the region’s unique dynamic response to climate change which explains the why its glaciers are declining so rapidly.

According to Rignot, the Patagonia Icefields are dominated by so-called ‘calving’ glaciers. Such glaciers spawn icebergs into the ocean or lakes and have different dynamics from glaciers that end on land and melt at their front ends. Calving glaciers are more sensitive to climate change once pushed out of equilibrium, and make this region the fastest area of glacial retreat on Earth. Rignot believes that research on the Pantagonian ice-fields have been particularly important in that the results can be used to forecast the fates of large sheets of ice in Greenland and Antarctica will respond to climate change in the future.

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