The Most Important Glacier in Antarctica is Melting Away

Thwaites is the most important glacier in the world, the ‘riskiest’ and the ‘doomsday’ altogether, according to the world’s glaciologists. The structure is gigantic, perhaps about the size of Great Britain, and it is responsible for 4 percent of the world’s sea-level rise every year, which is a huge figure for a single glacier. Now, satellite data depicts it melting at an alarming rate.

Thwaites is located in the center of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, a massive ice basin that holds over 3 meters (about 10 feet) of additional probable sea-level rise. In spite of the glacier being so important, no one has attempted to scientifically analyze the structure, until this year.

An Icefin team, the robot submarine that observes the changes below the waters, together with about 40 scientists are now part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, which is a five-year, $50 million collaborative U.K.-U.S. attempt to understand the reason of its rapid change.

The Reason Behind Thwaites’ Importance

West Antarctica is one of the fiercest parts of the world’s stormiest continent. Thwaites is rather isolated even when it comes to Antarctic standards, over 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from the closest research station.

Understanding what is happening with the glacier is crucial for scientists to be able to foresee future sea-level rise precisely. The ice in Antarctica contains 90 percent of the world’s freshwater, and 80 percent of that ice is located in the eastern area of the continent. However, western Antarctica is very different: it is smaller but still massive and is much more prone to change.

The reason glaciologists are so concerned about Thwaites is because of the sloping submarine layer, which shows that the glacier is getting thicker and thicker as they drill deeper. As researchers dug deeper into the structure, they discovered that the base of the glacier is over a mile below sea level at its deepest point, and there is another mile of ice topping that.

The Thwaites glacier in Antarctica is the most important ice structure in the world. [Image: Jemma Cox and David Vaughan]
What seems to be taking place is that deep warm ocean water is streaming to the coast and down to the ice front, thawing the ice structure. As the glacier withdraws, more ice appears, and as the surface part of each of these ice layers that appear gets bigger, it provides more ice for the warm water to melt.

Dr. Kiya Riverman, a glaciologist at the University of Oregon, said: “The fear is these processes will just accelerate. It is a feedback loop, a vicious cycle.”

Crucial Changes

The researchers state that the Pacific Ocean is also warming up, and that is moving wind patterns off the coast of West Antarctica, enabling the warm deep water to flow over the continental shelf.

“The deep Antarctic circumpolar water is only a handful of degrees warmer than the water above it – a degree or two above 0C – but that’s warm enough to light this glacier up,” says David Holland, an oceanographer with New York University.

In some areas, the massive sheet of ice has collapsed completely, forming bunches of massive icebergs. In other regions, there are cliffs of ice, some of which reach a mile up from the sea level. The front of the Thwaites glacier is about 160 kilometers (100 miles) wide and is falling apart into the sea at approximately three kilometers (two miles) per year.

The pace is alarming and explains why Thwaites is such a crucial element of the world sea-level rise. The structure is not going to disappear overnight, as the researchers believe it will take decades, or maybe a century, but that should not make us comfortable.

A meter of sea-level rise may not seem much, more so when you consider that in some regions, the level can rise and decrease by three or four meters (10 to 13 feet) per day.

However, sea level has a massive impact on the power of storm flows, Professor David Vaughan, the director of science at the British Antarctic Survey, says. Heat is energy, and energy drives the weather and ocean currents. If you increase the quantity of energy in the system, you get a fatally massive global process that is subjected to change.

“They already have in the Arctic,” Prof. Vaughan said. “What we are seeing here in the Antarctic is just another huge system responding in its own way.”

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