Scientists call it doomsday glacier.
This is due in part to the fact that Thwaites, a British glacier in western Antarctica, is melting at an alarming rate: it is retreating by about half a mile (2,625 feet) a year. Scientists estimate that the glacier will lose all its ice in 200 to 600 years. When it does, it raises the sea level by approx. 1.6-2 feet (0.5 meters).
But sea levels would not stop there. Thwaites’ nickname comes mainly from what would happen after it melted.
Right now, the glacier acts as a buffer between the warming ocean and other glaciers. Its collapse could bring nearby ice masses in western Antarctica down with it. Laid up, this process would raise the sea level by almost 1
“It’s a major change, a rewrite of the coastline,” David Holland, a professor of atmospheric science at New York University who contributes research to the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, told PBS NewsHour in February.
This moth, two new studies have added details to the alarming picture. Research published last week in the journal The cryosphere found that warm ocean currents might eat away at the abdomen of Thwaites glaciers.
A study released Monday, meanwhile, used satellite images to show that parts of Thwaites and its neighbor, Pine Island Glacier, are collapsing faster than previously thought. This work was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The images below reveal what is happening to Thwaites and nearby glaciers along with what may happen in the future.
The melting of Thwaites and Pine Island Glaciers already accounts for about 5 percent of global sea level rise.
Over: Satellite images between October 2014 and May 2019 show extensive damage to the Thwaites and Pine Island Glaciers.
It’s not just Thwaites: the Antarctic ice sheet is melting six times faster than it was in the 1980s. It throws 252 billion tons annually, up from 40 billion tons a year 40 years ago.
If the entire Antarctic ice sheet melted, scientists estimate sea levels would rise by 200 feet (60 meters).
Before and after photos taken from space show the Thwaites Glacier dissolving into the ocean.
“What the satellites show us is a glacier coming apart in the seam,” Ted Scambos, a senior researcher at the University of Colorado, told NASA in February.
This rapid melting occurs in part because natural buffers that hold Thwaites and Pine Glaciers in place break apart, according to new research.
Over: Split near landline on Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica.
Cracks like those in the image of the Pine Island Glacier above are formed near the displacement margins of glaciers: areas where fast-moving glaciers encounter slower-moving ice or rock that holds it contained.
The new PNAS Investigation showed that displacement margins on Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers weaken and collapse, causing ice to flow into the ocean.
The looming loss of the Thwaites Glacier is so worrying that the United States and Britain set up an international agency to investigate it.
This organization, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, studies the glacier via icebreaker ships that can break through thick ice sheets.
In February, researchers discovered a cavity almost the size of Manhattan on the underside of the Thwaites.
Over: A cavity nearly 1,000 feet high grows at the base of the Thwaites Glacier in western Antarctica.
The cavity that NASA scientists found using ice-penetrating radar in 2019 could have held 14 billion tons of ice.
The diagram below shows how warm underwater currents move under the glacier and slowly melt it from the bottom up.
Over: A 3D diagram of the Thwaites Glacier illustrating seabed channels that can carry hot water to the underside of glaciers and cause melting.
When ice sheets melt from below, they can lose their structure, causing them to melt even faster and dissolve in the ocean, as Thwaites do.
Researchers calculated that the Pine Island Glacier has lost an area the size of Los Angeles in the past six years.
“These are the first signs we’re seeing the Pine Island ice shelf disappear,” said Stef Lhermitte, a satellite expert and lead author on PNAS study, told Washington Post.
“This injury is difficult to heal.”
Sea level rise could affect as many as 800 million people by 2050, according to a 2018 report.
Over: A projection of what New York’s sea levels would look like with 10 feet of sea level rise.
The report from the C40 Cities climate network found that rising sea levels could threaten the power supply to 470 million people and regularly expose 1.6 billion people to extreme high temperatures.
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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