Investigators such as David Holland, an atmospheric expert at New York University, are running to determine the destiny of a gigantic glacier in West Antarctica dubbed “The Doomsday Glacier.”
Why this matters: Recent studies indicate that the Thwaites Glacier (its official name) is already on an irreversible path toward melting over the next few decades to centuries, releasing enough inland ice to increase global sea levels by at least several feet.
The news is driven by: Communicating through satellite telephone Holland said Thursday onboard an icebreaker sailing through thick sea ice near West Antarctica. His research team’s goal is to understand better what is occurring near the glacier’s grounding line. The interface between glacial ice and the seabed, or between floating ice and land ice.
The broader picture: Scientists will use the circumstances to forecast the glacier’s probable future.
- West Antarctica’s seabed morphology is such that if the ice shelf melts or even collapses severely, warm water may flow deep inland, melting land-based ice.
- That is, if the ice shelf breaks apart, it creates a pathway for the massive amounts of inland ice it holds back to flow into the sea more quickly, much like a doorstop or a cork in a wine bottle.
- It would increase sea levels, which might have devastating effects on coastal communities globally. Thwaites Glacier meltwater already accounts for around 4% of yearly global sea-level rise.
- Certain studies indicate that many West Antarctica may already be on an uncontrollable melt path, although the precise date is unknown.
- Holland’s study is part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, a worldwide effort to get a better understanding of Thwaites’ destiny, and hence that of some of the world’s most populous cities, from New York to Mumbai.
How does it work?
Holland’s scientists and engineers intend to utilize hot water drilling to drill boreholes through the ice shelf to examine the water underneath.
- Additionally, scientists will utilize tiny, uncrewed submarines to see under the ice to better understand the water temperature, salinity, and ocean currents in places essential for glacier stabilization.
If the water temperature immediately under the ice shelf is beyond freezing, the ice shelf will melt from below. It has been occurring in portions of Thwaites, as determined by satellite data and substantial field research.
Flashback: Scientists working with the global research initiative Holland revealed that they had discovered fresh fissures in Thwaites’ Eastern Ice Shelf in December.
- They warned that portions of the shelf might collapse in as little as five years, increasing the advance of inland ice to the sea and ultimately resulting in several feet of sea-level rise.
Between the lines: The finding of the eastern Thwaites ice shelf was a stunning surprise, given it is a section of the ice shelf that was previously believed to be more stable.
However, Holland said that most of the action takes place on the western part of the ice shelf, which is where he is now heading.
- “Western Thwaites travels quicker, is deeper, and penetrates the interior more deeply,” he said. “It may disintegrate fast, in a matter of decades, or it could take millennia. And the only way to determine this is via the study conducted here.”
“I am at the apex of the Earth, yet I am not far from where you are,” Holland said. “Everything is interconnected, and this ice that seems to be miles away is inextricably linked to your world and life.”