Climate change is destabilizing the ‘doomsday glacier’

One of the ever-looming risks of climate change is water level increase, which currently threatens to displace countless individuals around the world and require them to move inland by the end of the century. A huge part of the increasing water levels are hotter temperature levels at the poles—house to huge glaciers and ice racks that hold vital amounts of frozen H2O. 

The Florida-sized Thwaites glacier in Antarctica, nicknamed the “doomsday glacier,” is currently losing 50 billion lots of ice each year. That in itself represents around 4 percent of yearly international water level increase. But unpublished research study shared at the American Geophysical Union fall conference today reveals that the thinning ice rack extending from Thwaites might shatter within the next 3 to 5 years. Behind Thwaites lies an even bigger body of ice that, if the glacier melts, will be exposed to significantly warm waters.

“Thwaites is the widest glacier in the world,” Ted Scambos, a senior research study researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and lead organizer for the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), stated in a news release. “It’s doubled its outflow speed within the last 30 years, and the glacier in its entirety holds enough water to raise [global] sea levels by over two feet. And it could lead to even more sea level rise, up to 10 feet, if it draws the surrounding glaciers with it.” 

[Related: Ice sheets can melt much faster than we thought]

Thwaites has actually remained in problem for a while now—and researchers have actually been attempting to find out how precisely climate change will affect the rate of melting on it and other susceptible glaciers. These brand-new insights, nevertheless, reveal that the warming Southern Ocean is melting the ice from below, forming big fractures throughout the drifting ice rack. 

“I visualize it somewhat similar to that car window where you have a few cracks that are slowly propagating, and then suddenly you go over a bump in your car and the whole thing just starts to shatter in every direction,” Erin Pettit, a glaciologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, stated at the conference on December 13.

The ice rack is a drifting part of the glacier held constant by an “underwater mountain,” according to the CIRES release. If broken, it’s just a matter of time up until all that ice can melt and hurry into the ocean. “What’s most concerning about the recent results is that it’s pointing to a collapse of this ice shelf, this kind of safety band that holds the ice on the land,” Peter Davis, oceanographer with the British Antarctic Survey, informed CNN. “If we lose this ice shelf, then the glacier will flow into the ocean more quickly, contributing towards sea level rise.”

[Related: Cold War-era satellites bring bad news about melting glaciers around Everest]

Warming water sneaking beneath the glacier likewise triggers the ice to lose its grip on the “grounding zone”—the area of seabed holding the glacier in location. Peter Washam, a research study partner at Cornell University, found through a remote-controlled undersea robot that the grounding flooring is in “chaotic” shape due to warm water, rugged ice, and a steeply sloped base. Tides furthermore pump warm water in between the bedrock and the glacier, more affecting stability. 

“If Thwaites were to collapse, it would drag most of West Antarctica’s ice with it,” Scambos stated in the release. “So it’s critical to get a clearer picture of how the glacier will behave over the next 100 years.” Research from the ITGC, a group of 100 researchers comprising the biggest UK-US task on the southern continent in 70 years, will continue surveying Thwaites’s unstable future.

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