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In the remote, alien area of the world where the Amundsen Sea meets the coast of West Antarctica, tall, frozen cliffs loom over the water.

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They are the edges of massive glaciers—rivers of ice that spill into the ocean. In recent years, these icy rivers have been flowing and melting at an alarming rate, threatening to add a substantial amount of water to the sea that would eat away at global coastlines.

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A team of researchers in the U. For the most part, air temperatures are still too cold for surface melting to explain why the ice is thinning.

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That fact suggested the ocean was likely the culprit—yet the top layer of seawater is also too cold to thaw the ice. And while there is a deeper layer of warm ocean water that sometimes reaches the Amundsen Sea and laps away at the undersides of two giant glaciers in the region—called Pine Island and Thwaites—rising global temperatures were not directly warming that water. They suspected that wind might be the missing connection.

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Holland and his colleagues combined wind data, satellite observations of sea-ice drift and climate-model simulations to understand how wind patterns near Antarctica have evolved since the s which is how far back the simulations extend and how any changes may have affected glaciers that flow into the Amundsen Sea. They compared different simulations to parse which effects came from natural fluctuations in the climate versus anthropogenic climate change. They found that wind patterns indeed appear to have changed over the past century—and in a way that can explain the increased melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet.

In the s, the team reports, the winds over the Amundsen Sea would have predominantly blown toward the west, mostly keeping the warm ocean water at bay.

15 Interesting Facts About Antarctica

But today the wind patterns flip-flop between blowing eastward and westward. When the waters blow toward the east, the deep layer of warm ocean water can creep in. The reason climate change is causing this shift is because of the fundamental way wind works on the earth and responds to warming, Holland says. Antarctica is the continent at the extreme southern latitudes of Earth, containing the South Pole. At Antarctica, on average, is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent, and has the highest average elevation of all the continents.

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  • Antarctica is considered a desert, with annual precipitation of only mm 8 inches along the coast and far less inland. There are no permanent human residents, but anywhere from 1, to 5, people reside throughout the year at the research stations scattered across the continent.

    Only cold-adapted organisms survive, including many types of algae, bacteria, fungi, plants, protista, and certain animals, such as mites, nematodes, penguins, seals and tardigrades. Although myths and speculation about a Terra Australis "Southern Land" date back to antiquity, the Russian expedition of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev on Vostok and Mirny first sighted a continental ice shelf in The continent, however, remained largely neglected for the rest of the 19th century because of its hostile environment, lack of resources, and isolation.

    The Antarctic Treaty was signed in by 12 countries; to date, 49 countries have signed the treaty. The treaty prohibits military activities and mineral mining, prohibits nuclear explosions and nuclear waste disposal, supports scientific research, and protects the continent's ecozone.

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    • Reference Terms. It is surrounded by the Southern Ocean and divided in two by the Transantarctic Mountains.

      Why Planes Don't Fly Over Antarctica

      For comparison, Antarctica is nearly twice the size of Australia. Vegetation where it occurs is tundra.