"Most polar scientists have considered water moving across the surface of Antarctica to be extremely rare - but we found a lot of it over very large areas", he said in a statement. When climate scientists look at Antarctica, they see a ticking time bomb.
But the meltwater streams could also help transport meltwater to more vulnerable parts of the ice. The study, the first to extensively map meltwater, found 700 seasonal systems of ponds, channels, streams.
While a lot of the drainage channels that have been spotted aren't new, the new footage recording during the survey has scientists concerned about how far they stretch, and how soon they might send Antarctica's ice shelves crashing into the ocean.
"This is not in the future-this is widespread now and has been for decades", said Jonathan Kingslake, a glaciologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and lead author of the study, in a press release. If the ice sheet melts, it will raise sea levels by tens of feet, flooding coastal cities around the globe. "Export of meltwater by surface rivers may buffer the impact of warming temperatures", the researchers wrote.
Most of the work to understand the melt of Antarctica's ice shelves and glaciers has concentrated on the effects of warm ocean waters lapping away at them from below, not the surface meltwater produced by warming air temperatures.
Melt-water pooling on the surface of ice shelves can suddenly drain below the surface, fracturing the ice with heat and pressure, studies have shown.
To piece together a "big picture", Kingslake and his team combed through thousands of photos taken from military aircraft starting in 1947, along with satellite images dating back to 1973.
Scientists are also studying Greenland for clues as to how these streams might develop and affect sea level rises - between 2011 and 2014, about 70 percent of the 269 billion tons of ice and snow lost by Greenland to the oceans was due to meltwater. The liquid water flows down through the slope covering the underlying snow.
The different types of meltwater drainage systems could raise different possibilities for ice sheet stability.
During the southern hemisphere summer, the melt-water is efficiently drained through sinkholes and a "roaring 400-foot-wide waterfall into the ocean", Bell said. That may make the ice shelf more stable, since the meltwater gets funneled into the ocean immediately instead of building up on top of the ice shelf and cracking the ice below. Decades of satellite imagery and aerial photography have revealed an extensive network of lakes and rivers transporting liquid meltwater across the continent's ice shelves - almost 700 systems of connected pools and streams in total. The pace of the damage will increase as temperatures continue to rise as a result of man-made global warming.
Regardless of what they find, Bell and Kingslake are excited to delve further into the meltwater systems, which Bell says show that "there's still so much beauty to be discovered on our planet".