Antarctica’s Doomsday Glacier is about to explode

There’s nothing like going through a series of presentations on all ways one of the most endangered glaciers on earth to keep the blood flowing.

The American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting kicked off with a splash of news about: Thwaites Glacier. If there’s one Antarctic glacier you should care about, it’s this one. (Although, why choose one anyway?) Dubbed the “Doomsday Glacier”, Thwaites is in extremely rough shape and a significant portion of it could lose its grip on the bedrock by the end of this decade. That, in case it’s not clear, is bad.

“We’re looking at a world doing things we haven’t seen before,” Ted Scambos, senior researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science, said at a news conference.

Well then.

What’s happening to Thwaites Glacier is a disaster of epic proportions, and researchers have racing to describe it. The glacier flows down from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and extends across the Amundsen Sea. To get a sense of what’s happening on Thwaites, researchers conducted a multi-year study that scans the glacier from above and below, and even uses satellites to measure exactly what’s going on.

The results were ominous. The scientists said their measurements show that parts of the floating ice shelf are retreating at a rate of 2 kilometers per year. “It’s a little troubling, Scambos said, especially if you look at the ice sheet on the ice. The horizon moves toward you a mile a year.”

Warm water has also penetrated deep beneath the glacier. That has led to strange deformities in parts of the ice, including large fissures that cut into the ice. There is one particularly worn area where Lizzy Clyne, a researcher at Lewis & Clark College who has studied the glacier, was attached to the bedrock a decade ago, but is now a huge hollow.

Because warm water penetrates deeper under the ice, it clings less to solid ground. That could lead to more fractures and fissures, and eventually the entire ice shelf could collapse. This could cause more ice to tumble into the sea. Erin Pettit, a scientist at Oregon State University, said one of the more stable areas where Thwaites is founded on bedrock is undergoing rapid changes that “will decrease to near-zero contact by the end of the decade.” It was a location she chose to study on the eastern side of the ice, because it was one of the “dullest parts” of the glacier. However, satellite images before a field season there revealed a crack spreading across the surface of the ice, a crack she feared could cut across their field. In the end, that wasn’t a problem, but it was still an ominous sign of the Thwaites state.

Pettit compared it to a car windshield with a few cracks. “Then you go over a bump and it causes it to shatter,” she said.

But while you can replace a windshield, there is no ice repair service. The floating part of the glacier is holding back a basin of inland ice that, if dumped into the ocean, would cause a sea level rise about 3 meters. That won’t happen in one go if the ice shelf comes loose. But the collapse of Thwaites would set the world on a dangerous trajectory for decades and even centuries to come. Whether we’re on that trajectory or not is something the researchers will continue to explore. But the current state of affairs is still worrying.

“Within less than a decade there will be a dramatic change at the front of the glacier,” Scambos said. “If that happens, the fast-flowing part of Thwaites will probably get wider as we brace ourselves.” [the] east side may be gone. It may be several decades before some of the other processes… [but] it will effectively widen the dangerous part of the glacier.”

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