“Doomsday glacier” hanging on “by its fingernails,” scientists say

The loss of a glacier the size of Florida in Antarctica could wreak havoc on the world as scientists expect it would raise global sea levels up to 10 feet. It’s already melting at a fast rate — and scientists say its collapse may only rapidly increase in the coming years.

The Thwaites Glacier is the widest on Earth at about 80 miles in width. But as the planet continues to warm, its ice, like much of the sea ice around Earth’s poles, is melting. The rapidly changing state of the glacier has alarmed scientists for years because of the “spine-chilling” global implications of having so much additional water added to the Earth’s oceans, sparking its nickname of the “doomsday glacier.”

Thwaites Offshore Research (THOR) scientists Alastair Graham (right) and Robert Larter (left) look on in awe at the crumbling ice face of the Thwaites Glacier margin, from the bridge deck of the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer.   / Credit: Frank Nitsche/University of South Florida

Thwaites Offshore Research (THOR) scientists Alastair Graham (right) and Robert Larter (left) look on in awe at the crumbling ice face of the Thwaites Glacier margin, from the bridge deck of the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer. / Credit: Frank Nitsche/University of South Florida

To better predict what’s to come for the glacier, and how soon its demise could occur, researchers took a closer look at the grounding zone, where the glacier’s ice transitions from its crutch on the sea floor to being a floating shelf. This “critical area” in front of the glacier provided historical data about the glacier’s past rates of retreat, and according to the University of South Florida, whose marine geophysicist Alastair Graham led the study, it “provides a kind of crystal ball” into Thwaites ‘ insert

The results of the study were published in Nature Geoscience on Monday.

Looking at 160 parallel ridges that the glacier created as it retreated and moved along the ocean floor, scientists found that the glacier’s recently tracked rate of retreat is slower than what it has been at times in the past. Over the course of 5.5 months at some point in the last 200 years, scientists found that the glacier retreated at a rate of more than 2.1 kilometers (1.3 miles) a year — twice the distance it retreated from 1996 to 2009 and three times the rate from 2011 to 2017.

And while that may seem like a positive signal, it’s actually a sign that things could soon accelerate. “Similar rapid retreat pulses are likely to occur in the near future,” the study says.

Images created by researchers show how the melting of the Thwaites glacier creates ribbed parallel lines along the sea floor that serve as indicators for the rate of its erasure.  / Credit: Nature Geoscience

Images created by researchers show how the melting of the Thwaites glacier creates ribbed parallel lines along the sea floor that serve as indicators for the rate of its erasure. / Credit: Nature Geoscience

“Thwaites is really holding on today by its fingernails,” study co-author and British Antarctic Survey marine geophysicist Robert Larter said in a news release. “We should expect to see big changes over small timescales in the future — even from one year to the next — once the glacier retreats beyond a shallow ridge in its bed.”

“Our results suggest that pulses of very rapid retreat have occurred at Thwaites Glacier in the last two centuries, and possibly as recently as the mid-20th Century,” said lead author Alastair Graham, of the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science.

The more the glacier thins out, the shorter amount of time it will be before another amplified melting event, the study says, and recent observations of the glacier increase the probability that such an event could occur “in coming decades.”

Not even a year ago, scientists warned that Thwaites’ last ice shelf — the only brace that remains to prevent it from total collapse — may only last a few more years. Warm water seeping underneath the giant block of ice is a major contributor to its melting, and could help lead to the shelf’s final collapse within as little as five years.

Warm water was first discovered beneath the glacier at its grounding zone in 2020. The year before, researchers also discovered a massive cavity almost the size of Manhattan under the glacier.

“Just a small kick to Thwaites could lead to a big response,” Graham said.

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