‘World’s most dangerous’ glacier could soon collapse triggering sea level rise

Olive Hawkins
February 1, 2019

The discovery of cavity beneath Thwaites Glacier along with a number of other disconcerting features offer a new wrinkle to the harrowing tale of West Antarctica.

Scientists have found a "cavity" melted in the ice that occupies roughly two-thirds the surface area of Manhattan, prompting the space agency say its existence "signals" the ice sheet's "rapid decay". It's big enough to contain 14 billion tons of ice, most of which has melted over the last three years.

The glacier holds "enough ice to raise the world ocean level a little over 2 feet (65 centimeters)", said the team.

Worse, Thwaites Glacier acts as a kind of "door stop", preventing adjoining glaciers from sliding towards the sea.

Bute size and explosive growth rate of the newfound hole surprised them.

"We have suspected for years that Thwaites was not tightly attached to the bedrock beneath it", said Eric Rignot, one of the co-authors of the study.

"Thanks to a new generation of satellites, we can finally see the detail".

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By observing the undersides of Antarctic glaciers, researchers hope to calculate how fast global sea levels will rise in response to climate change. The red mass in the center shows the growing cavity.

The Thwaites Glacier is now responsible for 4 percent of global sea level rise. The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration is a joint project between the U.S. National Science Foundation and the British National Environmental Research Council with the aim of getting a better understanding of the glacier and how it will respond to climate change in the future.

A large cavity has formed under what has been described as one of the world's most risky glaciers, and could contribute to a significant bump in global sea levels, said Nasa scientists.

"We are discovering different mechanisms of retreat", first author of the new paper, JPL radar scientist Pietro Milillo explains. This information is extremely useful to scientists because how quickly a glacier melts depends a great deal on what's going on near that bedrock.

"Such data is essential for field parties to focus on areas where the action is, because the grounding line is retreating rapidly with complex spatial patterns", Milillo said. Here, the retreat rate of the ground line has doubled from about 0.4 miles (0.6 km) annually from 1992 to 2011 to 0.8 miles (1.2 km) a year from 2011 to 2017, he said.

Thwaites Glacier, curiously, isn't melting in a uniform way. Hopefully, the upcoming global collaboration will help researchers piece together the different systems at work under and around the glacier, the researchers said.

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