Article image

Doomsday Glacier seems to have lost its ability to recover

A recent study paints a chilling picture of West Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier, the so-called “Doomsday Glacier.” Research by Julia Wellner, an associate professor of geology at the University of Houston, and James Smith, marine geologist at the British Antarctic Survey, reveals disturbing changes in the glacier’s history.  

The study highlights the urgent need to understand climate change and the looming threat of catastrophic sea level rise.

Doomsday Glacier

The Thwaites Glacier, a massive glacier covering an area similar to Florida, is located in West Antarctica. The Doomsday nickname reflects the potential for catastrophic flooding if the glacier were to completely collapse.

Thwaites acts as a crucial barrier, preventing the flow of ice from the Antarctic interior towards the ocean. The glacier already contributes significantly to sea level rise, accounting for about 4%, and its melting rate has been accelerating in recent decades. 

Key findings

Scientists discovered that a major retreat of the glacier began in the 1940s. This timeframe is interesting because it aligns with a powerful El Niño event, a natural occurrence that causes warming. 

The research suggests that El Niño may have played a part in starting the glacier’s retreat. The glacier was already vulnerable at that time, and El Niño might have pushed it to a point where it began losing ice much faster.

While El Niño may have sparked the melting, other factors such as climate change are now causing the glacier to melt continuously and lose ice at an even faster pace.

No signs of recovery

Researchers are concerned that Thwaites Glacier isn’t bouncing back from its retreat, unlike most glaciers that naturally grow and shrink over time. In the past, these changes were caused by things like snowfall and temperature fluctuations

However, Thwaites seems to be stuck in a shrinking phase, suggesting something has significantly changed. This inability to recover points towards a long-term shift in how the glacier interacts with its environment.

The situation is likely to get worse because of global warming. Human activity is causing the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans to heat up, melting ice worldwide and upsetting the natural balance that allows glaciers to recover.

This warming is melting Thwaites from both the top and bottom, making it even harder for the glacier to regrow.

Global sea level

Every year, melting glaciers add massive amounts of water to the oceans, but scientists are most worried about the possibility of the entire glacier collapsing.

This collapse could raise sea levels by over two feet, which would have devastating consequences. In addition to flooding coastal areas and harming economies, it would also make storm surges more dangerous.

Thwaites Glacier plays a crucial role by acting like a dam, holding back a much larger ice sheet that would lead to a significant sea level rise if it melted. 

If Thwaites collapses, it could trigger a domino effect. Other glaciers in the region would become unstable and melt even faster, creating a chain reaction that could cause a much bigger impact on sea level rise. This scenario would have catastrophic consequences for the entire world.

Synchronized retreat of the Doomsday Glacier

The Pine Island Glacier is a giant among West Antarctica’s glaciers. Together with the Thwaites Glacier, it contributes significantly to rising sea levels. Both glaciers are retreating at the same time, suggesting a common cause rather than independent events. 

“If both glaciers are retreating at the same time, that’s further evidence that they’re actually being forced by something,” Dr. Wellner said in a press release.

This synchronized retreat is likely driven by broader environmental factors, such as warmer ocean water or changing sea currents. These changes might be connected to global climate events like El Niño.

The evidence suggests that the melting is not limited to these specific glaciers, but rather driven by larger climate shifts throughout West Antarctica.

Doomsday Glacier and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, a giant sheet of ice covering part of Antarctica, is crucial for its potential impact on global sea levels. This sheet relies heavily on the Doomsday Glacier for its stability.

The size and location of Thwaites are critical because its health directly affects the rest of the ice sheet. Similar to a keystone in an arch, if Thwaites melts or retreats, it could destabilize the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The glacier currently acts like a barrier, preventing ice from the continent’s interior from flowing freely into the ocean. As Thwaites weakens, more ice flows outward, accelerating sea-level rise.

The potential collapse of Thwaites and the destabilization of the ice sheet are concerning due to the massive amount of ice involved.

If the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet melted, it could raise sea levels by over 10 feet, submerging low-lying areas like coastal cities and entire countries, leading to widespread displacement and economic damage.

While this scenario is not an immediate threat, it represents a long-term risk that grows with ongoing global warming and ice sheet deterioration. 

Broader implications 

The findings warn the world about the urgent threat of climate change, focusing on the rapid changes in Antarctica. This specific example shows how even the most stable and remote parts of Earth are being affected by rising temperatures.

The dramatic retreat and potential collapse of the Doomsday Glacier highlight the need for stronger scientific research and international cooperation to understand and address climate change. 

“Humans are changing the climate and this study shows that small continuous changes in climate can lead to step changes in glacier state,” said Martin Truffer, a physics professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who was not involved in the research.

Furthermore, changes in Antarctica can impact global weather and sea levels, affecting people worldwide. This emphasizes the need for a united global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, shift towards sustainable energy sources, and implement effective climate policies. 

The planet’s destiny depends on whether we heed its warning and collaborate as a united force. Will we rise to the challenge, or succumb to the rising tides?

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day