A new study has shown that the so-called “doomsday glacier” is retreating faster than previously predicted.
Leading scientists warned this week that Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, a key source of sea level rise, is “hanging on by its fingernails”.
The crucial ice sheet covers more than 74,000 square miles, which is an area roughly the size of Great Britain, according to the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration.
Without it and its supporting ice shelves, global sea levels could rise by more than three to 10 feet, leading to apocalyptic flooding in coastal areas and storms, hence its grim name.
The latest research, published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience, shows that Thwaites experienced a phase of “rapid retreat” sometime in the past 200 years for a period of less than six months.
This means it loses more water than it gains and therefore causes sea levels to rise.
Alarmingly, the mass is now retreating at a rate of 1.3 miles per year, twice the rate observed by satellites between 2011 and 2019.
Robert Lartner of the British Antarctic Survey said: “Thwaites is really holding on today, and we should expect to see big changes on small timescales in the future, even from year to year, once the glacier retreats further.a shallow ridge in its bed.
Because of its size, Thwaites has been of great concern to those working to predict how the world will be affected by climate change.
Unlike other glaciers that are connected to dry land, this one rests on the sea floor, making it more vulnerable to increasingly warm waters.
Alastair Graham, lead author of the study and a marine geophysicist at the University of South Florida, said its rapid disintegration possibly occurred “as recently as the mid-20th century.”
To collect the geophysical data, the team, which included scientists from the UK, US and Sweden, launched a state-of-the-art orange robotic vehicle loaded with imaging sensors called Ran during an expedition in 2019.
Ran embarked on a 20-hour mission to map an area of the seafloor in front of the glacier the size of Houston, and did so in extreme conditions.
Alastair said it “was truly a once-in-a-lifetime mission”, adding that the team hope to return soon to collect samples from the seabed.
This will help them determine when previous rapid pullbacks occurred and also help predict future swings.
“Just a small kick to the Thwaites could trigger a big response,” he added.
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