Antarctic ‘Doomsday’ Glacier Isn’t Looking So Good

Big StoryClimate Glaciers
Antarctic ‘Doomsday’ Glacier Isn’t Looking So Good

One of the world’s biggest and most precarious glaciers just got some more bad news. A study published on Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed for the first time that warm seawater is pumping underneath much of the Thwaites glacier in West Antarctica, a process that can cause “vigorous melting.” The rapid sea level rise some scientists have been warning about may be on its way sooner rather than later.

“Thwaites is the most unstable place in the Antarctic,” said Christine Dow, a glacier expert at the University of Waterloo who co-authored the study, according to a press release. The Thwaites itself has enough ice to raise global sea levels by around two feet; but it is the glacier’s position and potential to help unleash widespread melting across more of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet that gives it the name “Doomsday glacier.” West Antarctica in total has enough ice for at least ten feet of sea level rise.

The researchers used data from the Finnish ICEYE satellite, which provided a continuous picture of the 80-mile-wide glacier. It showed that the huge mass of ice is constantly rising and falling and bending in a rhythm that matches the tides — an indication that seawater is intruding far below the surface and interacting directly with Thwaites.

Though scientists have known the glacier has been losing mass, these results could change the timelines in question. “The worry is that we are underestimating the speed that the glacier is changing, which would be devastating for coastal communities around the world,” Dow said. They estimate that it could be only 10 to 20 years before the glacier has retreated into a deeper part of the basin in which it sits, which would help accelerate melting further. Though the researchers are still working to produce more accurate estimates of sea level rise that will arrive on the order of decades rather than centuries, there is a chance that the melt starts happening “much faster than anticipated by current models.”

The really earth-shaking effects of multiple feet of sea level rise are not something humans have proven particularly good at planning for. It’s probably time to start.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin