NASA’s ICESat-2 Map Antarctic Meltwater Lakes With Astonishing Precision
From above, the Antarctic Ice Sheet might look like a calm, perpetual ice blanket that has covered Antarctica for millions of years. But the ice sheet can be thousands of meters deep at its thickest, and it hides hundreds of meltwater lakes where its base meets the continent’s bedrock. Deep below the surface, some of these lakes fill and drain continuously through a system of waterways that eventually drain into the ocean.
Now, with the most advanced Earth-observing laser instrument NASA has ever flown in space, scientists have improved their maps of these hidden lake systems under the West Antarctic ice sheet—and discovered two more of these active subglacial lakes.
The new study provides critical insight for spotting new subglacial lakes from space, as well as for assessing how this hidden plumbing system influences the speed at which ice slips into the Southern Ocean, adding freshwater that may alter its circulation and ecosystems.
NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite 2, or ICESat-2, allowed scientists to precisely map the subglacial lakes. The satellite measures the height of the ice surface, which, despite its enormous thickness, rises or falls as lakes fill or empty under the ice sheet.
Hundreds of meltwater lakes hide deep beneath the expanse of Antarctica’s ice sheet. With a powerful laser altimeter system in space, NASA’s Ice Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) is helping scientists “see” under the ice. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
The study, published on July 7, 2021, in Geophysical Research Letters, integrates height data from ICESat-2’s predecessor, the original ICESat mission, as well as the European Space Agency’s satellite dedicated to monitoring polar ice thickness, CryoSat-2.
Hydrology systems under the Antarctic ice sheet have been a mystery for decades. That began to change in 2007, when Helen Amanda Fricker, a glaciologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, made a breakthrough that helped update classical understanding of subglacial lakes in Antarctica.
Using data from the original ICESat in 2007, Fricker found for the first time that under Antarctica’s fast flowing ice streams, an entire network of lakes connect with one another, filling and draining actively over time. Before, these lakes were thought to hold meltwater statically, without filling and draining.
“The discovery of these interconnected systems of lakes at the ice-bed interface that are moving water around, with all these impacts on glaciology, microbiology, and oceanography—that was a big discovery from the ICESat mission,” said Matthew Siegfried, assistant professor of geophysics at Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colo. and lead investigator in the new study. “ICESat-2 is like putting on your glasses after using ICESat, the data are such high precision that we can really start to map out the lake boundaries on the surface.”
Scientists have hypothesized subglacial water exchange in Antarctica results from a combination of factors, including fluctuations in the pressure exerted by the massive weight of the ice above, the friction between the bed of the ice sheet and the rocks beneath, and heat coming up from the Earth below that is insulated by the thickness of the ice. That’s a stark contrast from the Greenland ice sheet, where lakes at the bed of the ice fill with meltwater that has drained through cracks and holes on the surface.
To study the regions where subglacial lakes fill and drain more frequently with satellite data, Siegfried worked with Fricker, who played a key role in designing the way the ICESat-2 mission observes polar ice from space.
Siegfried and Fricker’s new research shows that a group of lakes including the Conway and Mercer lakes under the Mercer and Whillans ice streams in West Antarctica are experiencing a draining period for the third time since the original ICESat mission began measuring elevation changes on the ice sheet’s surface in 2003. The two newly found lakes also sit in this region.
In addition to providing vital data, the study also revealed that the outlines or boundaries of the lakes can change gradually as water enters and leaves the reservoirs.
“We’re really mapping out any height anomalies that exist at this point,” Siegfried said. “If there are lakes filling and draining, we will detect them with ICESat-2.”