3D Body Scan of Alaska’s Malaspina Glacier Reveals Global Sea Level Rise Risk

Researchers have released a study detailing a detailed “body scan” of Malaspina Glacier- one of Alaska's most iconic glaciers. The scan revealed that its bulk lies below sea level and is undercut by channels that may allow ocean water to gain access, should its coastal barrier erode.[0] It has been determined that the glacier is more susceptible to seawater intrusion than previously assumed, which could result in a more rapid retreat than had been forecasted.[1]

A team of researchers from the University of Arizona recently published their findings in the Journal of Geophysical Research, which highlights the vulnerability of a large glacial system. This could result in the loss of ice and land in the National Park Service, which would also contribute to a rise in global sea level.[2]

The plane's ice-penetrating radar utilized X-ray technology to create a comprehensive three-dimensional scan of the glacier and its underlying bedrock as it flew over it.[2] Results from the measurements showed that the Malaspina glacier is mostly situated below sea level, and that it was cut by multiple channels at its base which ran a minimum of 21 miles from where the glacier met the shore to its source in the Saint Elias Mountains.[2]

The positioning of the glacier with regards to the sea level, along with the ongoing reduction of its coastal barrier, may create pathways for sea waters to access substantial sections of the glacier's bed, as the study authors note in their paper.[1] If the glacier were to retreat as a result of large-scale melting, the researchers estimate that Malaspina Glacier could release 560 cubic kilometers, or 134 cubic miles, of ice into the ocean.[1] To put it another way, Malaspina Glacier's melting could lead to a rise in global sea levels of approximately 1.4 millimeters, amounting to less than a sixteenth of an[1]

The Malaspina Glacier is the world's largest piedmont glacier, situated in southeast Alaska. This type of glacier flows from steep mountains onto a broad plain, resembling a “pancake of ice” that stretches out onto a coastal plain from the St. Elias Mountains. It forms an expansive ice sheet that extends to the shore. A slim strip of land is all that stands between the glacier and the warm waters of the Gulf of Alaska.[2] Using historical satellite imagery, it can be seen that these water bodies have grown in size over the years, forming a lagoon system right in front of the glacier in the past several decades.[1]

0. “3D radar scan provides clues about threats to iconic Alaskan glacier” Phys.org, 16 Mar. 2023, https://phys.org/visualstories/2023-03-3d-radar-scan-clues-threats.amp

1. “3D radar scan provides clues about threats to iconic Alaskan glacier” Phys.org, 16 Mar. 2023, https://phys.org/news/2023-03-3d-radar-scan-clues-threats.html

2. “Alaskan glacier bigger than Switzerland may lead to largest US threat” Interesting Engineering, 17 Mar. 2023, https://interestingengineering.com/science/alaskan-glacier-switzerland-us-threat

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