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Oct 07, 2013 11:02 AM EDT

Scientists Discover Massive Channels of Water beneath Floating Antarctic Ice Shelf

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Vast streams of water measuring nearly 250m in height (equivalent to Eiffel Tower) and extending hundreds of kilometers were discovered flowing beneath the Antarctic ice shelf. Researchers said that this could speed up the melting process and threaten parts of the Antarctic ice shelf.

The researchers from the University of Exeter, Newcastle University, the University of Bristol, the University of Edinburgh, the British Antarctic Survey and the University of York, came across these giant channels of water using satellite images and airborne radar measurements.

"The information gained from these newly discovered channels will enable us to understand more fully how the water system works and, hence, how the ice sheet will behave in the future," Dr Anne Le Brocq of the University of Exeter, who led the study, said in an official statement.

They found large rivers of meltwater beneath the floating ice shelf as well as on the surface.

"The channels are likely to influence the stability of the ice shelf and their discovery will help researchers understand how the ice will respond to changing environmental conditions," the statement said.

The finding has been published in the Nature Geoscience journal.

The scientists also predicted the path of meltwater flowing underneath the ice sheet. They found that the flow paths met the channels under the ice shelf at the point where the ice starts to float. Based on this finding, the researchers determined that water flow underneath the ice sheet is responsible for the development of channels beneath the floating ice shelf.

The researchers said that the streams of water, which form beneath ice on solid land trickles down to the ocean, forming channels beneath the floating ice shelf. When the cold meltwater under the ice sheet arrives at the ocean beneath the ice shelf, it causes warmer sea water to plume upwards, which results in the formation of large streams underneath the ice.

Previously, researchers believed that water flowed in a thin layer beneath the ice sheet, rather than a more concentrated manner much like rivers of water

"If we are to understand the behavior of the ice sheet, and its contribution to changes in sea level, we need to fully understand the role of water at the base of the ice sheet," Brocq said.

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