Antarctica is commonly divided into three parts: West Antarctica, East Antarctica, and the Antarctic Peninsula. From space, Antarctica just looks like one vast white landscape and indeed it is all one landmass underneath all the ice, but there are three geographically and climatologically unique parts. On the map below, you might notice the Antarctic Peninsula first. If the Antarctic continent were your fist, the peninsula is the “thumb” reaching up towards the tip of South America. The section on the left below the Antarctic Peninsula is West Antarctica and the massive region to the right is East Antarctica. Cutting the continent in two, and dividing west from east, are the Transantarctic Mountains. Ice to the west of this divide flows west and the opposite happens for ice to the east.
East Antarctica is much bigger than West Antarctica and the ice there is much thicker, reaching over 4.5 km thick in some places. Interior East Antarctica is also the driest and coldest part of the continent.
West Antarctica is thought to be much less stable. This has to do with both the bed topography below the ice and climate forcing. In some places, the ice is so thick it pushes the bedrock below sea level. In parts of West Antarctica where this happens near the edge of the ice sheet, warm sea water can infiltrate at the bed of the ice sheet and into the depression leading to accelerated ice loss. (Note: this mechanism is called the Marine Ice Sheet Instability, look it up). This is one of the reasons why West Antarctica is losing mass the fastest.
In fact, to research how the unstable West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) will affect future sea level rise and to understand how rapid global climate changes occur, the WAIS initiative was formed. Each year, this multidisciplinary program, brings together scientists from around the world for the week long WAIS Workshop.
This year, the workshop was held in Julian, CA a small desert town about 1.5 hours east of San Diego. While it may have been a bit ironic that it was situated in a desert, the week was spent discussing the latest research on West Antarctica through a series of oral presentation sessions and posters.
I had the opportunity to give a presentation on my research modeling the thermal characteristics at the bed of Thwaites Glacier.
While most of the conference was spent in conference rooms, we did have one special appearance by a tamed wolf who was actually bred for friendliness as part of a biology study. This was not an official part of the conference but just happened to be taking place at a nearby farm. I have to say getting to pet a friendly wolf pup has now set the bar pretty high for future conferences 🙂