A vast network of previously unmapped glaciers on the move from thousands of miles inland to the Antarctic coast has been charted for the first time by UC Irvine scientists. The findings will be critical to tracking future sea rise from climate change.

“This is like seeing a map of all the oceans’ currents for the first time. It’s a game changer for glaciology,” said UCI Earth system science professor Eric Rignot, lead author of a paper on the ice flow published online today in Science Express. “We’re seeing amazing flows from the heart of the continent that had never been described before.”

Rignot, who is also with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and UCI associate project scientists Jeremie Mouginot and Bernd Scheuchl used billions of points of data captured by European, Japanese and Canadian satellites to weed out cloud cover, solar glare and land features. With the aid of NASA technology, they painstakingly pieced together the shape and velocity of glacial formations, including the huge bulk of previously uncharted East Antarctica, which comprises 77 percent of the continent.

Like viewing a completed jigsaw puzzle, Rignot said, the men were stunned when they stood back and took in the full picture. They discovered a new ridge splitting the 5.4 million-square-mile landmass from east to west. They found unnamed formations moving up to 800 feet each year across immense plains sloping toward the Southern Ocean – and in a different manner than past models of ice migration.

“The map points out something fundamentally
new: that ice moves by slipping along the ground it rests on,” said Thomas
Wagner, NASA’s cryospheric program scientist in Washington. “That’s critical knowledge
for predicting future sea level rise. It means that if we lose ice at the
coasts from the warming ocean, we open the tap to massive amounts of ice in the

The work was completed during a period called the International Polar Year, and is the first such study since 1957. Collaborators working under the aegis of the Space Task Group were NASA, European Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, as well as the Alaska Satellite Facility, and MacDonald, Dettwiler & Associates Ltd.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time that a tightly knit collaboration of civilian space agencies has worked together to create such a huge dataset of this type,” said Yves Crevier of the Canadian Space Agency. “It is a dataset of lasting scientific value in assessing the extent and rate of change in polar regions.”

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded
in 1965, UCI is a top-ranked university dedicated to research,
scholarship and community service. Led by Chancellor Michael Drake since
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students, 1,100 faculty and 9,000 staff. Orange County’s largest
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About NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory: JPL is a federally funded research and development facility managed by the California Institute of Technology for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. JPL activities include an active program of automation and robotics supporting planetary rover missions and NASA’s Space Station program. In supercomputing, JPL has pioneered work with new types of massively parallel computers to support processing of enormous quantities of data to be returned by space missions in years to come.

About the European Space Agency: The ESA is Europe’s gateway to space. Its mission is to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world. ESA is an international organization with 18 member states. By coordinating the financial and intellectual resources of its members, it can undertake programs and activities far beyond the scope of any single European country.

About the Canadian Space Agency: Established in March 1989, the CSA was created through an Act of Parliament, proclaimed in December 1990. The CSA is committed to leading the development and application of space knowledge for the benefit of Canadians and humanity. Its mandate is to promote the peaceful use and development of space, to advance the knowledge of space through science and to ensure that space science and technology provide social and economic benefits for Canadians.

About the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency: Established in 2003 by a merger of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan, and the National Space Development Agency of Japan, JAXA is an independent administrative institution overseeing space development and utilization, and aviation research and development. Under its corporate message ”Reaching for the skies, exploring space,” JAXA strives to use its research and development missions to contribute to the peace and happiness of humankind.

About the Alaska Satellite Facility: The ASF of the Geophysical Institute at University of Alaska Fairbanks downlinks, archives, and distributes satellite data. ASF comprises a Satellite Tracking Ground Station as part of the NASA Ground Network system, the Synthetic Aperture Radar Data Center in support of NASA’s Earth Science Data and Information System project, and the Americas ALOS Data Node established by JAXA in agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). ASF’s mission is to promote, facilitate, and participate in the advancement of remote sensing in order to support national and international Earth science research, field operations, and commercial remote-sensing applications that benefit society.

About MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd.: MDA provides advanced information solutions that
capture and process vast amounts of data, produce essential information, and
improve the decision making and operational performance of business and
government organizations worldwide.

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