Paolo and Fricker said the data show the characteristic signature of this kind of melt, which happens at what is called the grounding line, or the point where the glacier last touches land and the ice shelf begins. Other recent studies examining glaciers have also bolstered this idea, and have even suggested that some glaciers in West Antarctica have reached a point where their retreat and melt is now irreversible.

The picture is murkier in the east, in part because so much less work has been done there. This study shows, though, that East Antarctic ice shelves “are actually subject to large changes as well,” Paolo said.

The biggest rates of ice loss seen in the Amundsen embayment imply that some of those ice shelves, if they continue at the same rates, could be gone within a century. Of course, “what’s going to happen 100 years from now, we cannot know,” Paolo said, which is why it’s so important to understand exactly “what are the causes, the mechanisms, behind the changes we see.”

For that, you need what Scambos calls “boots on the ice”—missions that put researchers and equipment onto the ice shelves to get more detailed information about the forces pushing them around.

That’s not an easy sell, because “the Antarctic environment is perhaps one of the most difficult environments to work,” Paolo said. But there are hopes that new satellite missions, along with remotely operated submarines and other technology can help build our knowledge of the forces at play in the southernmost continent.

As this study makes clear, Scambos said, we need continuous monitoring of this environment because “we’re faced with a planet that is changing in ways we don’t want.

This post originally appeared at Climate Central

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