Antarctica: Mighty Thwaites Glacier threatens to melt
Global warming is threatening ice shelves linked to the Thwaites Glacier. If they fracture and break, much of the glacier could melt into the sea, causing a dramatic sea level rise.
Thwaites Glacier is one of the largest of its kind in Antarctica. Covering an area of 192,000 square kilometers, it is roughly the size of the UK. One third of the glacier consists of large floating ice platforms, or ice shelves. Increasingly, however, these platforms have been fracturing.
Ice shelf could shatter like a windshield
Researchers warn that the mighty glacier could be undergoing dramatic change. It is possible that, within the next three to five years, a 45-kilometer-long ice shelf segment could shatter and break like a car window, researchers from the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration project say.
Serious rise in sea level looms
The ice shelf currently prevents the gargantuan glacier from slipping into the sea. If it were to shatter, huge amounts of glacial ice could end up melting into the water. Much of the glacier would break up into floating icebergs, say scientists.
No isolated event
It would not be the first incident of this kind. In July 2017, the vast A68 iceberg detached from the Larsen C ice shelf in West Antarctica. While icebergs break off constantly, the timing of the event — during the cold Antarctic winter months — baffled scientists. Many suspect global warming could be a factor.
Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves at risk
Over the past 20 years, seven ice shelves along the Antarctic Peninsula have shattered, or drastically receded. This means more ice has melted into the sea, which has caused sea levels to rise.
Warm water accelerates thaw
Climate change, or the warming of the sea more specifically, is to blame for the Thwaites Glacier melting. Warm water flowing beneath the ice shelves have caused large sections to thaw, forming glacier caves. This melting process has accelerated tremendously over the past 30 years. Scientists are closely monitoring the development.
Breakup could trigger major sea level rise
Together, the melting Thwaites Glacier and Pine Island Glacier already account for a 10% rise in global sea levels. If the Thwaites Glacier were to break up entirely, releasing all its ice into the water, sea levels worldwide would rise by about 65 centimeters (25 inches).
The breakup of the Thwaites Glacier would trigger a dangerous chain reaction. Should it melt, other nearby glaciers (like the Pine Island Glacier, pictured) could follow. Vast swaths of the West Antarctica ice could break off, causing sea levels to rise by up to 3,3 meters. That’s why the Thwaites Glacier has been nicknamed the Doomsday Glacier.