‘Glacier of Crisis’ is hanging ‘by its claws’, 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 by up to 10 feet. It is already melting at a rapid rate – and scientists say its collapse may increase rapidly in the coming years.

The Thwaites Glacier is the widest on Earth at about 80 miles wide. But as the planet continues to warm, its ice caps, like much of the sea ice around Earth’s poles, are melting. The glacier’s rapidly changing state has worried scientists for years because of the global implications of adding so much extra water to Earth’s oceans, sparking the nickname “doomsday glacier.”

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

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

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

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

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

Images created by researchers show how the melting of the Thwaites Glacier is creating striated parallel lines along the sea floor that serve as indicators of its rate of erosion.  / Credit: Nature Geoscience

Images created by researchers show how the melting of the Thwaites Glacier is creating striated parallel lines along the sea floor that serve as indicators of its rate of erosion. / Credit: Nature Geoscience

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

“Our results suggest that pulses of very rapid retreat have occurred on Thwaites Glacier over the past 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 Sciences.

The more the glacier thins, the shorter the time will be before another enhanced melting event, the study says, and recent observations of the glacier raise the possibility that such an event could occur “in the coming decades.”

Not even a year ago, scientists warned that the last Thwaites Ice Shelf – the only foothold left to prevent it from completely collapsing – could only last a a few more years. Warm water seeping beneath the giant ice block is contributing significantly to its melting and could lead to the shelf’s eventual collapse in just five years.

Hot water was first discovered beneath the glacier in its grounding zone in 2020. Last year, researchers also discovered a voluminous 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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