Scientists with the American Geophysical Union warned on Monday that an Antarctic glacier the size of Florida is on the verge of collapsing. The Thwaites Glacier dubbed as the Doomsday Glacier is roughly the size of the United Kingdom, and it dumps 50 billion tonnes of ice each year. For years, scientists have been watching the glacier, whose ongoing melting contributes to about 4% of yearly sea level increase. Its eastern part, which borders an undersea mountain, was assumed to be more stable, but new satellite photographs revealed fractures that are allowing rising ocean waters to accelerate its dissolution. “We have mapped out weaker and stronger areas of the ice shelf and suggest a zig-zag pathway the fractures might take through the ice, ultimately leading to break up of the shelf in as little as 5 years, which result in more ice flowing off the continent,” scientists said in a paper presented at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union, as reported by India Today.
Warming ocean water is not only melting Thwaites from below, but it is also loosening the glacier’s grip on the submerged seamount underneath it, making it even more unstable. The warm water is thinning and weakening the ice, causing it to move quicker and pushing back the point at which the main glacier body becomes buoyant. The eastern ice shelf’s leading edge is currently held in place by an offshore underwater ridge, limiting its flow speed to a third of that of the ice shelf’s western sector, which is unconstrained.
Because Thwaites is moving so swiftly and might have a large impact on global sea-level rise, more than 100 scientists from the US and the UK are working together on eight research projects to track the glacier from top to bottom; results from several of these teams were presented at AGU. The ITGC teams in Antarctica will continue to monitor and study changes in the continuous interaction between the glacier, ice shelf, and ocean on Thwaites in order to assist world leaders and policymakers in planning for the future. These findings will help policymakers track the effects of glacial melt on sea-level rise over the next few decades, and how that will affect coastal towns around the world.