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Antarctica's 'Doomsday Glacier' and Why it's Melting Faster Than You Think: All You Need to Know

Vanishing glaciers | Representative photo.

Vanishing glaciers | Representative photo.

A recent study of the Thwaites Glacier - also known as the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ - by scientists in a Swedish university has found that the glacier was melting much faster than previously anticipated.

Environmentalists are constantly warning the world about the global warming-induced melting of glaciers in Antarctica and the dangers it poses. But just how dangerous is the situation, really? Thwaites and the nearby Pine Island Glacier are two of the biggest and fastest-retreating glaciers in Antarctica. A recent study of the Thwaites Glacier - also known as the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ - by scientists in a Swedish university has found that the glacier was melting much faster than previously anticipated.

What is the Doomsday Glacier?

The Thwaites glacier is known as the Doomsday Glacier due to the imminent risk to it caused by global warming but also with respect to the risk it poses to the world once it melts. With a width of 120 km at its broadest and a size if 1.9 lakh square kilometers, the fast-moving and melting glacier holds enough water to raise the water level of the entire world by an entire metre.

How is the glacier in danger?

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Previously, a study conducted by the New York University in 2019 had found warm water under the glacier which was speeding up the melting of the glacier. The team had dug a hole in the glacier and used a sensing device to gauge the temperature and flow of waters moving underneath the glacier’s grounding point. The study found the waters to be just two degrees over freezing point. The latest study found, conducted by researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, found three major inflows of warm water under the glacier and that one of them was largely unnoticed earlier.

How was this data obtained?

The researchers used a device that went underneath the glacier to study the salinity, temperature and oxygen levels of currents flowing below glaciers among other things. Data collected by the device, known as Ran, allowed researchers to map the ocean currents and determine and that warm water coming from PineIsland Glacier is a major contributor to one of the channels.

Why does it matter?

The rapidly melting Thwaites Glacier already contributes four percent to the global rise in sea-levels and is currently estimated to survive for over half a century before it finally gets dissolved completely. Previous studies such as one conducted in 2020 have shown that glaciers like the Thwaites and Pine Island Glacier are losing ice at a rapid pace, a phenomenon that may cause the ice shelves to break apart. While the melting of the Doomsday glacier itself will cause a 2-ft rise in water levels, the event will also cause a domino effect among other ice sheets in the Antarctic that will get exposed to warmer water so far kept at bay by Thwaites. This could together raise water levels by up to 10 ft, enough to submerge several coastal parts of the world including New York City.

The results of the new research are being seen as a step in the right direction in terms of conserving ice shelves.

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first published:April 13, 2021, 13:10 IST