Thwaites ‘doomsday glacier’ is holding its ‘claws,’ scientists say.

Thwaites ‘doomsday glacier’ is holding its ‘claws,’ scientists say.


Thwaites Glacier, capable of raising sea levels by several feet, is eroding along its underwater base as the planet warms. In subject published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience, scientists mapped the ice’s historical retreat, hoping to learn from its past what the ice is likely to do in the future.

They found that at some point in the past two centuries, the ice core moved out of the ocean and retreated at a rate of 1.3 miles (2.1 kilometers) per year. That’s double the rate scientists have seen in the last decade or so.

That rapid breakup could happen “as soon as the middle of the 20th century,” Alastair Graham, lead author of the study and a marine physicist at the University of South Florida, said in a news release.

It suggests Thwaites has the ability to make a quick comeback in the near future, once it moves back behind the seawall that it’s helping to control.

“Thwaites is really holding its claws today, and we should expect to see big changes at small time scales in the future — even from one year to the next — once the ice recedes behind the shallow river bed,” Robert said. Later, a marine geophysicist and one of the study’s authors from the British Antarctic Survey, said in the release.

The US Antarctic Program research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer operating near the East Thwaites Ice Shelf in 2019.

The Thwaites Glacier, located in West Antarctica, is one of the widest on Earth and is larger than the state of Florida. But only the West Antarctic ice sheet, which holds enough ice to raise sea levels up to 16 feet, according to NASA.

As the climate crisis escalates, this area has been closely monitored because of the rapid melting and its potential for extensive coastal damage.

The Thwaites Glacier itself has worried scientists for decades. As early as 1973, researchers questioned whether it was in serious danger of collapse. About a decade later, they discovered that — because the ice is anchored to the bottom of the ocean, rather than dry — warm ocean currents can melt the ice from below, causing it to drift from below.

It was because of that research that scientists started to call the surrounding region Wathwaite “Weak West Antarctic ice sheet.”
A workboat recovering the Rán self-propelled vehicle in one of the fjords of the Antarctic Peninsula during an expedition to Thwaites Glacier in 2019.

In the 21st century, researchers began documenting Thwaites’s rapid retreat in an alarming series of studies.

In 2001, satellite data showed that the equator was shrinking by about 0.6 miles (1 km) per year. In 2020, scientists found evidence that indeed warm water was flowing at the bottom of the ice, melting from below.
The world's largest ice sheet is collapsing faster than previously thought, satellite images show
And then in 2021, research showed the Thwaites Ice Shelf, which helps stabilize the ice and prevent ice from flowing freely into the ocean. it could fall apart within five years.

“From the satellite data, we’re seeing these large fractures extending across the ice sheet, essentially weakening the ice sheet; a bit like a crack in the windscreen,” Peter Davis, an oceanographer at the UK Antarctic Survey, said. CNN in 2021. “It’s slowly spreading across the ice shelf and will eventually break up into many different pieces.”

Monday’s findings, which suggest that the Thwaites are capable of decelerating faster than previously thought, were recorded on a 20-hour mission in extreme conditions that mapped an underwater area the size of Houston, according to a news release.

Graham said that this study was “really a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” but the team hopes to return soon to collect samples from the ocean floor so they can determine when the original retreat occurred. That could help scientists predict future changes to “doomsday ice,” which scientists had previously thought would be slow to change — something Graham said the study disproves.

“Just a small blow to Thwaites can cause a huge response,” Graham said.