Meteorites Are Becoming Harder to Find as They Sink Into Antarctica’s Melting Ice

The disappearing space rocks are burying valuable clues into the history and composition of our solar system, according to a new study

A close-up photograph of a black meteorite half-submerged in white snow and ice. A black and yellow gloved hand holds a small measuring device next to the rock.
Antarctic meteorite (HUT 18036) is found partially submerged in ice, as opposed to resting atop the surface.  Katherine Joy, University of Manchester, Lost Meteorites of Antarctica project

A cosmic treasure trove, Antarctica has long been a boon for astronomers and other scientists hoping to uncover pieces of rock from outer space.

Of the 80,000 meteorites ever found on Earth, more than 60 percent (nearly 50,000 in all) have been discovered on the Antarctic ice sheet. It isn’t that debris tends to fall here more often—but compared to other places on the planet, the dark-colored space rocks are much more visible against the icy polar expanse, making them easier for scientists to find and retrieve.

But as climate change-induced warming continues to heat Earth’s poles at least twice as quickly as the rest of the world, this once-trustworthy process for discovery is wavering, researchers write in a new study published last week in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Darker than their surroundings, fallen meteorites absorb more heat in higher air temperatures and warm up the snow they rest on. As the rocks melt the area around them, they sink into the ice sheet, falling out of sight as the surface re-freezes. At that point, the meteorites are considered unrecoverable.

“This is a bit of an unexpected impact of climate change,” Harry Zekollari, a glaciologist at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium and a co-lead author of the study, tells National Geographic’s Theo Nicitopoulos. “These places are below freezing, yet we are still profoundly affecting a very important archive of the solar system.”

Antarctic areas known as blue ice regions are especially fruitful for meteorite discoveries—there, windy weather and natural ice processes uncover space rocks that have fallen over several thousand years. But the study’s authors have recently noticed more meteorites coated with ice than before, as the rocks sink into the continent, writes the New York Times Katherine Kornei.

Using computer modeling, the researchers quantified this trend they were observing and forecast the future impacts of warming on meteorite discovery. Over the next few decades, about 5,000 meteorites per year will be lost due to melting, they found, reaching 24 percent of the continent’s total in 2050. And under a high-emissions scenario, the team estimates that 76 percent of all meteorites in Antarctica could vanish by 2100.

A diagram illustrates how sun-warmed meteorites heat up the ice on which they rest, and fall beneath the surface.
Warmed by the sun, black meteorites heat the ice on which they rest and gradually sink beneath the surface, out of sight of researchers. Tollenaar, Zekollari et al., Nature Climate Change 2024

Between 80,000 and 250,000 meteorites in all could be lost by the century’s end—and with them, the space dust, molecules and other remnants of the early universe that offer hints about the formation and make-up of Earth and other planets, could also disappear.

“As the climate continues to warm… we lose precious time capsules that hold clues to the history of our solar system,” Maria Valdes, a research scientist at the Field Museum of Natural History who was not involved in the study, tells CNN’s Katie Hunt.

The most vulnerable meteorites, per the research, are those rich in iron, a metal that conducts heat particularly well. Space rocks found at lower elevations, which tend to have warmer air temperatures, are also at risk. Elevations between 5,900 feet and 6,600 feet have been a sweet spot for meteorite discovery—but by the end of the century, the team’s models show, up to 90 percent of meteorites at this altitude could sink below the ice.

A scientist in a red coat and orange helmet stands on the sunny Antarctic ice sheet, with blue mountains stretching in the background
Union Glacier in Antarctica, where solar radiation is heating the surface of a region of blue ice. Veronica Tollenaar, Université Libre de Bruxelles

Prioritizing Antarctic expeditions in search of space debris—from the moon, Mars or asteroids—should be a focus in the coming years, Veronica Tollenaar, a glaciologist at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium and a co-lead author of the study, tells the New York Times. “It’s important to focus efforts on the most sensitive areas,” she says to the publication.

To National Geographic, Tollenaar adds: “We don’t have a lot of time. We need to go with more people to more places to recover the relics.”

Most meteorite-seeking expeditions are done the same way they have been for decades: by searching on foot and with snowmobiles, per the New York Times. But the use of modern technology such as drones and high-resolution modeling is beginning to be more common—and will need to be, the authors write, in a race against time.

“We suggest a major international effort to revisit known sites or access unexplored sites with larger searching teams over the next 10 to 15 years,” the authors write.

“We need to accelerate and intensify efforts to recover Antarctic meteorites,” Zekollari says in a statement from ETH Zurich. “The loss of Antarctic meteorites is much like the loss of data that scientists glean from ice cores collected from vanishing glaciers—once they disappear, so do some of the secrets of the universe.”

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