Giant Glacier in Antarctica Could Disintegrate Quickly, Scientists Warn

Scientists are warning of dramatic changes in one of the largest glaciers in Antarctica, potentially in the next five to ten years.

They say a floating section in front of the Thwaites glacier has so far been relatively stable could “break like the windshield of a car”.

Researchers from the United States and the United Kingdom are currently involved in an intense study program in Thwaites because of its rate of melting.

It is already pouring 30 billions of tons of ice into the ocean each year.

This is having a limited impact on global sea levels today, but there is enough ice trapped in the glacier watershed to raise ocean levels by 65 cm—if everything melts.

This “doomsday” scenario is unlikely to happen for many centuries, but the study team says that Thwaites is now responding to a warming world in really very fast ways.

“There will be a dramatic shift on the glacier’s front, probably in less than a decade. Both previously published and unpublished studies point in this direction,” says glaciologist Ted Scambos, US chief coordinator for the Thwaites Glacier International Collaboration (ITGC) to BBC News.

“This will speed up the pace (of the thwaites thaw) and effectively extend the dangerous part of the glacier,” he adds.

Thwaites is a colossus. from Great Britain or Florida, and its melting speed has doubled in the last 30 years.

The ITGC has shown how this dynamic is happening. the result of warm ocean water passing beneath—and melting—the floating front of the Thwaites, or ice shelf as it is known.

Hot water is thinning and weakening this ice, causing it to do so. melting faster and pushing back the zone where the main glacier’s body becomes buoyant.

Currently, the edge of the eastern ice shelf is held in place by a a subsea offshore crest, which means that its flow velocity is one third of that observed in the western sector of the ice shelf, which has no such restriction.

But the ITGC team says that the platform east will likely detach from the crest in the next few years, which will destabilize it. And even if it doesn’t, the continued appearance of fractures on the ice shelf will almost certainly break the area anyway.

“I view this similarly to the car window where you have some cracks that are slowly propagating and all of a sudden you go through a bump and the whole thing starts to break down in all directions,” explains Erin Pettit, from Oregon State University in the United States.

The affected area is very small when considered in the context of the glacier as a whole, but it represents a shift to a new regime, and more importantly what this means for further ice loss.

Currently , the eastern shelf, which has a width of about 30 km, advances about 600 meters per year. The next change in status will likely cause the ice to jump in speed to about 2 km per year — the same as the current speed recorded in the west sector of 80 km wide.

Jointly funded by the US National Science Foundation and the UK Natural Environment Research Council Research Council, the ITGC project, which will last five years, investigates Thwaites down to the last detail.

Each summer in Antarctica, teams of scientists analyze the glacier’s behavior in every possible way. From satellite, on ice and from ships in front of Thwaites.

The teams have already started to move to start work in the new season that is about to start — some teams are still quarantined around Covid before starting the real fieldwork.

One of the New Year’s projects will involve the little yellow submarine known as the ” Boaty McBoatface”.

Under the floating ice of Thwaites, he will collect data on water temperature, current direction, and turbulence—all factors influencing the melt.

The autonomous vehicle will carry out missions lasting from one to four days, navigating its own way through the cavity below the platform.

This is a high mission risk as the seabed terrain is extremely uneven.

“It’s scary. We may not have Boaty back,” says Alex Phillips of the UK’s National Center for Oceanography.

“We try very hard last year in the development of anti-collision systems, to ensure it didn’t crash into the seabed. We also have contingency plans whereby if he gets into trouble, he can retrace his steps and retreat to safety. “

The latest studies on the Thwaites Glacier are being presented this week at the Autumn Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans.

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