Satellite imagery has revealed that two of the fastest-changing glaciers in Antarctica are fracturing and weakening faster than ever – the first step towards the glaciers disintegrating and causing sea levels to rise dramatically.

Using observations from ESA, NASA and USGS satellites, the researchers explored the Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment: two of the most dynamic glaciers on the Antarctic continent, and those responsible for a substantial 5% of global sea level rise.

Together, the two glaciers form an area of flowing ice the size of Norway, and hold enough water to raise global sea levels by over a metre. Both have distinctly changed in morphology in recent decades along with changing atmospheric and oceanic conditions, with the warming oceans causing ice shelves to melt, thin, and retreat.

Predicting how these vital glaciers will evolve in coming years is critical to understand the future of our seas and our warming planet – but such predictions have remained uncertain, with computer models unable to fully account for the glaciers’ processes and properties in their projections.

Using data from multiple missions, ESA's Climate Change Initiative provides the long-term, empirical data records to understand changes occurring across Antarctica - and for several other Essential Climate Variables.

Watch the animation of the break in Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier

This fracturing appears to kick off a feedback process – it preconditions the ice shelves to disintegrate. Thomas Nagler of ENVEO and Science Leader for ESA's Climate Change Initiative