Welcome to AntarcticGlaciers.org
Antarctic glaciers are beautiful and awe-inspiring. They affect us through their connections with the ocean and sea level, and environmental change is having rapid consequences in Antarctica.
Antarctica is the world’s largest ice sheet, covering ~14,000,000 km2. Much of the Antarctic ice sheet surface lies above 3000 m above sea level. This massive thickness of ice drowns whole mountain ranges, and numerous volcanoes exist underneath the icey exterior. Antarctica is the world’s fifth largest continent, and it is, on average, the highest and coldest continent.
Antarctica provides a unique record of the Earth’s past climate, through the geomorphological record of glacier moraines, through ice cores, through deep sea sediment cores, and through past records of sea level rise.
The Antarctic Continent
The Antarctic continent comprises three ice sheets: the Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. Most of Antarctica is covered by ice (~98%), with ice-free areas on, for example, nunataks (high mountains poking through the ice sheet), James Ross Island and Alexander Island on the Antarctic Peninsula, and the McMurdo Dry Valleys in East Antarctica.
The Antarctic Ice Sheet is drained by fast-flowing ice streams, which respond quickly to climate change; they can thin, accelerate, recede, or even stop flowing entirely. Beneath the thick skin of ice, there is flowing water and subglacial lakes. Despite the aridity and cold temperatures, there is life on the ice, in the ice and underneath the ice.
Antarctic glaciers terminate on land or in the sea, as floating ice shelves or grounded or floating outlet glaciers. The Antarctic Ice Sheet contains 25,400,000 km3 of ice, which, if it melted, would be equivalent to a sea level rise of 58 m. The ice sheet is over 4000 m thick in places, and in places, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is grounded more than 1500 m below sea level. The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was at Vostok: -89.2°C on 21st July 1983. The Dry Valleys of Antarctica are the most similar place on Earth to the desolate landscapes of the Moon and Mars.
Patagonian and British-Irish Ice Sheets
The Patagonian Ice Sheet reached its maximum extent around 27,000 years ago, and had formed a long, thin ice sheet along the Patagonian Andes. The dynamics of the ice sheet are closely related to the ocean currents and Southern Westerly Winds, and so the dynamics of this long, thin ice sheet can tell us about past climate.
The British-Irish Ice Sheet reached its maximum extent also at around 27,000 years ago. The ice sheet reached the continental shelf around its northern and western margin, leaving behind landforms like drumlins, moraines and ice-dammed lakes. It had a large marine margin, similar in some ways to Antarctica today.
This website aims to introduce some key concepts in Antarctic glaciology and glacial landscapes and systems more broadly. These ideas are explored in our Science Themes, and include descriptions of different types of glacier, ice shelves, and ice streams. This website also explores the recent rapid environmental changes happening today in Antarctica, and how changes in atmospheric and ocean temperatures has led to ice-shelf collapse, rapid glacier recession and sea level rise.
Pages that are particularly relevant to the UK A-Level curriculum are highlighted with a yellow flash.
Click through each of the Science Themes on the website to discover more about Antarctic glaciers. Italicised words are defined in the Glossary. Alternatively, ask a me a question through twitter (@Antarcticglacie) or Ask a Scientist!
Co-authors include Dr Jacob Bendle, also from Royal Holloway, who is an expert in the Patagonian Ice Sheet, and Andy Emery, from Leeds University, who is an expert in the British Ice Sheet. We also have guest contributions from others. For more information on authors, see the About page.
We acknowledge funding from the Quaternary Research Association, Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research, Royal Holloway University of London, the British Society for Geomorphology and the Geologists’ Association. For more information, see the About page.
1. Lythe, M.B., Vaughan, D.G., and the BEDMAP Consortium. 2001. BEDMAP: a new ice thickness and subglacial topographical model of Antarctica. Journal of Geophysical Research, 2001. 106(B6): p. 11335-11351.