Scientists find serious melting beneath the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ in Antarctica
Thwaites Glacier, an ice formation the size of Florida, can change the world. And the latest research shows that some of the most vulnerable spots are at greater risk than previously thought.
Thwaites contains a colossal amount of ice, enough to gradually raise sea levels by over two feet(Opens in a new tab), although its collapse in a warming climate could release many more feet from neighboring glaciers. The Antarctic glacier has destabilized, retreating nearly nine miles since the 1990s. If much of it gradually melts over the coming decades and centuries, large swathes of coastal cities and populated areas around the world could be inundated and easily devastated by storms. Because of this, scientists are now researching intensely where Thwaites is melting, and how fast it could melt. These are monumental questions for the future inhabitants of the earth.
Take it from researchers traversing the continent’s calloused ice plains to document Thwaites’ rapid changes.
“Thwaites is the only place in Antarctica that has the potential to dump a tremendous amount of water into the ocean over the next few decades,” Sridhar Anandakrishnan, a professor of glaciology at Penn State University, told Mashable in 2021.
For better or for worse, Thwaites has earned the nickname “Doomsday Glacier” for this reason. But crucially, civilization is not inherently doomed, climate scientists stress. We are not unhappy; We have energy options that can limit the worst impacts of climate change.
The latest research from 2023, straight from the West Antarctic source, continues to show how the glacier is melting. The critical point is below the Thwaites Ice Shelf, the end of the glacier that reaches out over the ocean. Crucially, ice shelves burrow into the sea floor, acting something like “a cork in a bottle” to prevent the rest of the colossal glaciers from flowing freely into the sea. So if the ice shelf eventually disappears, so can the glacier (although this process continues over many decades to centuries).
Glaciologists drilled nearly 2,000 feet through the Thwaites Ice Shelf to lower a miniature yellow, submarine-like robot called Icefin into the dark water so they could see what’s going on in this vulnerable priming region. The Recent Research(Opens in a new tab)just appeared in the science journal Nature(Opens in a new tab), reveals two main findings:
The glacier continues to melt underwater, but along the flat areas that make up much of this ice shelf, this thinning is occurring more slowly (about 6 to 16 feet, or 2 to 5 meters per year) than the researchers had anticipated.
Still, Thwaites is melting faster than expected in cracks beneath critical floating ice shelf. Scientists suspect that relatively warmer water is seeping into the natural cracks and fissures, increasing melting at these weaker spots (see footage below).
“Thwaites is the only place in Antarctica that has the potential to dump a tremendous amount of water into the ocean over the next few decades.”
What actually happens when the so-called “Doomsday Glacier” collapses?
While glaciologists are still unraveling the intricate underwater melting mechanisms, the bigger picture is clear. The glacier is losing ice; and only small amounts of ice loss in this critical touchdown zone can result in a large total ice loss.
“Our results are a surprise, but the glacier is still struggling,” said Peter Davis, a British Antarctic Survey oceanographer who made some of the recent measurements at Thwaites, in a statement(Opens in a new tab). “When an ice shelf and a glacier are in equilibrium, the amount of ice coming off the continent equals the amount of ice lost through iceberg melting and calving. What we found is that despite small amounts of melt, rapid glacier retreat is still occurring. So it doesn’t seem to take much to throw the glacier off balance.”
The Icefin robot explores the ocean under sea ice.
What Scientists Saw Under Doomsday Glacier
In the recent field trip to West Antarctica, researchers camped on the remote Thwaites Ice Shelf and dropped the robot Icefin into the water below. The rare images featured in the British Antarctic Survey video below show what is happening with the thinning ice. Melting in fissures has left “staircase-like” formations on the underside of Doomsday Glacier.
“Warm water seeps into the cracks and helps wear down the glacier at its weakest points,” said Britney Schmidt, associate professor of astronomy and earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University who worked on the new Thwaites research, in an explanation.
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The Icefin material is invaluable as there is currently no other way to reach this almost unreachable zone in one of the most remote places on earth. And the new footage underscores an important point: researchers still don’t fully understand the melting processes beneath one of the world’s largest and most consequential glaciers.
“It shows us that this system is very complex and requires a rethink of how the ocean is melting the ice, especially in a place like Thwaites,” Davis said.
This map of Antarctica shows Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica on the left.
Photo credit: British Antarctic Survey
How much is the sea level rise expected?
Since the end of the 19th century, sea levels have risen by around 20 to 25 centimeters worldwide(Opens in a new tab). But much more is on the agenda.
Today, the melting of Thwaites contributes four percent(Opens in a new tab) to sea level rise of the ocean. In the decades and centuries to come, however, that number could skyrocket as the glacier breaks away from the sea floor and “pops the cork off the bottle,” so to speak. Ice was free to flow into the sea, which would eventually lead to it feet of sea level rise.
Sea level rise is accelerating, driven by melting ice and thermal expansion of the oceans. The seas are currently rising by about an eighth of an inch each year. By 2050, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projects that sea levels around the United States will rise by about one more foot(Opens in a new tab).
By the end of the century, climate scientists estimate that global sea levels will rise by about 1.5 to 2.5 feet in total and will continue to rise. How much depends largely on how colossal glaciers like Thwaites and nearby Pine Island respond to warming conditions and water warming.
The heat content of the oceans has been rising for decades because the seas absorb over 90 percent of the heat that humanity traps on Earth.
Importantly, the effects of warming on ice sheets like Greenland and Antarctica depend largely on the most unpredictable part of the climate change equation: humans. Fueled by the massive burning of fossil fuels, heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has skyrocketed over the past century. The CO2 concentration is now the highest it has been in over 3 million years. how high will they go
https://mashable.com/article/thwaites-doomsday-glacier-antarctica-melting Scientists find serious melting beneath the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ in Antarctica