The Thwaites glacier is one of the fastest changing glaciers in Antarctica, contributing as much as four percent of global sea level rise today. The huge, Florida-sized glacier – also known as the “Doomsday glacier” due to its recent tendency to disintegrate – faces dramatic changes in the next decade. It is already dumping 50 billion ton of ice into the ocean each year.
Recently, scientists have discovered several large, worrying cracks in the ice shelf holding back this glacier, suggesting that this crucial buttress against sea level rise could completely shatter within the next five years.
“There is going to be dramatic change in the front of the glacier, probably in less than a decade. Both published and unpublished studies point in that direction,” reported glaciologist Ted Scambos, the US lead coordinator of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC). “This will accelerate the pace (of Thwaites) and widen, effectively, the dangerous part of the glacier,”
According to Erin Pettit, a glaciologist at the Oregon State University, the weak spots that the scientists have recently discovered are like cracks in a windshield: with just one more blow, they could spiderweb across the entire ice shelf surface.
“You’re like, I should get a new windshield. And one day, bang – there are a million other cracks there,” she said. “This eastern ice shelf is likely to shatter into hundreds of icebergs. Suddenly the whole thing would collapse.”
Although the shattering of the Doomsday glacier will not immediately accelerate global sea level rise, it will not take much long until its effects will be strongly felt, and millions of people living in coastal areas will be endangered.
Moreover, since the Thwaites glacier is situated in a deep basin, if it collapses, neighboring glaciers could follow, ultimately leading to the loss of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet. “That would be a global change,” said Robert DeConto, a glaciologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “Our coastlines will look different from space.”
During the following year, scientists will continue investigating the current status of the glacier by sending a tubby yellow submarine known as “Boaty McBoatface” to dive under Thwaites’ floating ice in order to gather data on factors that influence melting, such as water temperature, current direction, and turbulence.
The new findings regarding the status of the Thwaites glacier are presented this week at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in New Orleans.