Scientists have discovered warm water underneath the Thwaites “Doomsday” Glacier in Antarctica, which could speed up the melting of the Florida-sized block of ice, potentially affecting sea-level rise around the world.
This doomsday scenario, which first captured the public imagination in the classic adventure Raising Atlantis by New York Times bestselling author Thomas Greanias, has suddenly taken a dangerous step closer to reality.
“Warm waters in this part of the world, as remote as they may seem, should serve as a warning to all of us about the potential dire changes to the planet brought about by climate change,” said David Holland, director of New York University’s Environmental Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, which conducted the research.
“If these waters are causing glacier melt in Antarctica, resulting changes in sea level would be felt in more inhabited parts of the world,” he said in a statement.
At 74,000 square miles, the glacier is roughly the same size as Florida and is particularly susceptible to climate and ocean changes, according to the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration.
The hunk of ice earned its ominous “doomsday” nickname because it’s one of Antarctica’s fastest melting glaciers, Live Science said. Some scientists see Thwaites as the most vulnerable and most significant glacier in the world in terms of future global sea-level rise – its collapse would raise global sea levels, perhaps overwhelming existing populated areas, according to New York University.
Over the past 30 years, the amount of ice flowing out of Thwaites and its neighboring glaciers has nearly doubled. Already, ice draining from Thwaites into the Amundsen Sea accounts for about 4% of global sea-level rise.
A runaway collapse of the glacier would lead to a significant increase in sea levels of about two feet and scientists want to find out how quickly this could happen.
“We know that warmer ocean waters are eroding many of West Antarctica’s glaciers, but we’re particularly concerned about Thwaites,” Keith Nicholls, an oceanographer from British Antarctic Survey, said in a statement. “This new data will provide a new perspective of the processes taking place so we can predict future change with more certainty.”
The scientists’ measurements were made in early January, after the research team created a nearly 2,000-foot deep access hole and deployed an ocean-sensing device to measure the temperature of the waters moving below the glacier’s surface.
Holland said that “the fact that such warm water was just now recorded by our team along a section of Thwaites … where we have known the glacier is melting – suggests that it may be undergoing an unstoppable retreat that has huge implications for global sea level rise.”
First published in USA Today on January 31, 2020.