Now, scientists have systematically cataloged them-revealing them to be more extensive than many scientists had thought.
In some cases, these systems achieve a scale that's hard to fathom.
While most research into Antarctic ice melt has concentrated on the impacts of warming ocean waters that are eating away at the ice from below, a new continent-wide survey shows that these surface meltwater drainage systems are much more prevalent around the continent than was previously thought. The surface of its largest pond can grow by more than 400 NFL football fields in a single day, thanks to this drainage.
According to the survey which was documented in two papers published in the journal Nature (one and two), some of the meltwater bodies can grow to gargantuan proportions.
Ice floats can be seen just off the coast of West Antarctica.
Ice shelves, floating parts of ice sheets, are vulnerable to collapse when water flows into their cracks and crevasses.
Study co-author Robin Bell from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory explained that it is like letting bouncers leave the entrances of bars.
There are various mechanisms through which the meltwater network forms during the Antarctic summer.
But Bell's work on the Nansen Ice Shelf points to a distinctly different role for surface water, in certain situations.
Meltwater pooling on the surface of ice shelves can suddenly drain below the surface, fracturing the ice with heat and pressure, studies have shown. The most recent example of such an incident in the disintegration of the Larsen Ice Shelf. Numerous newly observed drainages were actually not new but the new footage recording projected that their existence is significant.
"This is not in the future-this is widespread now, and has been for decades", says study author Jonathan Kingslake, who studies glaciers at Columbia University, in a press release.
The researchers noted that the increasing temperature in the Antarctic area could greatly affect the meltwater systems.
Antarctica holds enough frozen water to push up global oceans by tens of meters.
Bell added that surface meltwater isn't the only process glaciologists are concerned could be accelerating ice sheet collapse. The branching channels eventually merge, dumping meltwater into the ocean via a 130-metre-wide waterfall at the ice shelf's edge. Usually, the melt water ice refreezes in winter but this time it seems that its probability is much lower.
The study draws on satellite images of the continent dating back to 1973 and aerial photos collected by military planes from as early as 1947. "Currently, we are only aware of the river and waterfall system on the Nansen", she said.
"Amazingly, we saw features in aerial photography from the 1940s very reminiscent of features we saw later in satellite images", Kingslake said.
Scientists have discovered that seasonally flowing streams fringe much of Antarctica's ice. In the face of this almost incomprehensible complexity, we ought to be humble about our current scientific understanding, and acknowledgement that climate research is-like any scientific endeavor-still very much a work in progress. "We're trying to make a meal for fifty people with a butter knife". Meltwater flows risk hastening the collapse Antarctica's ice shelves-but in some cases, meltwater drainage could help keep ice shelves stable.
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