Scientists warn that drastic changes will occur in one of the largest glaciers in Antarctica, likely in the next five to ten years.
They say a section floating in front of the Thwaites Glacier was so relatively stable that it could “break like a car’s windshield”.
Researchers from the United States and the United Kingdom are currently participating in an intensive study program at Thwaites due to its melting rate.
It actually dumps 50 billion tons of ice into the ocean every year.
This “doomsday” scenario is unlikely to happen for several centuries, but the study team says Thwaites is now responding to the warming world in really, really fast ways.
“There will be a major shift on the glacier front, probably in less than a decade,” glaciologist Ted Schampos, principal coordinator of the US-based International Cooperation Organization, told the BBC News of Thwaites Glacier.
“This will speed up the pace (thaw) and effectively widen the dangerous part of the glacier,” he adds.
Thwaites is a giant. It’s the size of Britain or Florida, and its melting speed has doubled in the past 30 years.
ITGC showed how this dynamic occurs. It is caused by warm ocean water passing under – and melting – the floating front of the Thwaites Mountains, or the ice shelf as it is known.
Hot water thins and weakens this ice, making it melt faster and pushing the area where the main glacier’s body becomes afloat.
Currently, the edge of the eastern ice shelf is held in place by a subsea ridge, which means that its flow velocity is one-third the speed observed in the western sector of the ice shelf, which has no such restriction.
But the ITGC team says the eastern shelf is likely to break off from the summit in the next few years, destabilizing it. And even if it didn’t, the continued appearance of fractures in the ice shelf would definitely fracture the area anyway.
“I look at it similar to a car window where there are some cracks spreading slowly and suddenly going through a bump and the whole thing starts to crumble in all directions,” explains Erin Pettit of Oregon. University in the United States.
The affected area is very small when viewed in the context of the glacier as a whole, but it does represent a shift to a new system, and more importantly what this means for further ice loss.
Currently, the eastern shelf, which is about 40 km wide, is advancing by about 600 meters per year. The next change in position is likely to increase the ice velocity to about 2 kilometers per year – the same as the current speed recorded in the 80 kilometer wide western sector.
Co-funded by the US National Science Foundation and the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council, the five-year ITGC project investigates Thwaites in minute detail.
Every summer in Antarctica, teams of scientists analyze the behavior of the glacier in every possible way. From satellite, on ice and from ships in front of Thwaites.
Teams are already on the move to start work on the new season that is about to start – some teams are still being quarantined by covid before fieldwork begins in earnest.
One of the New Year’s projects will include the little yellow submarine known as “Boaty McBoatface”.
Underneath the Thwaites ice float, you’ll collect data about water temperature, current direction and turbulence — all factors that influence melt.
The autonomous vehicle will perform missions lasting from one to four days, navigating its own way through the cavity under the platform.
This is a high-risk task, as the topography of the sea floor is very uneven.
“It’s scary,” says Alex Phillips of the UK’s National Oceanographic Centre. “We may not be back in Poiti.”
“We have put a lot of effort over the past year in developing collision avoidance systems, to ensure that it doesn’t hit the sea floor. We also have contingency plans where if he encounters a problem he can retrace his steps and back out of his safety.”
The latest studies on Thwaites Glacier are presented this week at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans.
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