Antarctica’s so-called “doomsday glacier” — given the ominous nickname because of its high risk of collapse and threat to global sea levels and the economy — has the potential to rapidly retreat within five years.
That’s more quickly than the scientists first studying the glacier’s demise in the 1970s believed, a study released Monday, and past findings, suggest.
Officially known as the Thwaites Glacier, the ice formation, if detached, is capable of pushing up sea levels by several feet.
“Thwaites is really holding on today by its fingernails, and we should expect to see big changes over small time scales in the future — even from one year to the next — once the glacier retreats beyond a shallow ridge in its bed,” Robert Larter, a marine geophysicist and one of the study’s co-authors from the British Antarctic Survey, said in a release.
Why does it matter? Higher seas could cost both developed and developing nations in lost lives, lost business and recovery costs. A Deloitte analysis shows that insufficient action on climate change and global warming could cost the U.S. economy alone $14.5 trillion in the next 50 years. A loss of this scale is equivalent to nearly 4% of GDP or $1.5 trillion in 2070 alone.
Rán, an autonomous underwater vehicle key to climate change research in Antarctica, floats amid sea ice in front of Thwaites Glacier. It had just completed a 20-hour mission mapping the seafloor.
Credit: Anna Wåhlin/University of Gothenburg
When sea levels rise as rapidly as they have been, even a small increase can have damaging effects on coastal habitats farther inland. Higher seas can cause destructive erosion, wetland flooding, aquifer and agricultural soil contamination with salt, and lost habitat for fish, birds and plants, all of which impacts how we eat and our susceptibility to disease, National Geographic explains. For instance, flooding rivers well inland could be made more dangerous for longer if there’s no room for them to empty into the oceans.
“‘ Thwaites is really holding on today by its fingernails, and we should expect to see big changes over small time scales in the future, even from one year to the next…’”
— Robert Larter, marine geophysicist
In the peer-reviewed Thwaites report published in the journal Nature Geoscience, scientists mapped the glacier’s historical retreat, hoping its past behavior can inform what the glacier will likely do in coming years.
The glacier’s swift disintegration possibly occurred “as recently as the mid-20th century,” said Alastair Graham, the study’s lead author and a marine geophysicist at the University of South Florida, in the release.
Thwaites is eroding along its underwater base as the planet warms. So far, a seabed ridge is helping to hold the glacier in place. But a separate study last year showed the Thwaites Ice Shelf, which helps to stabilize the glacier and hold the ice back from flowing freely into the ocean, could break apart within five years.
The study’s seabed mapping was documented on a 20-hour mission in extreme conditions and covered an underwater area the size of Houston, according to the release.
The Thwaites Glacier, actually located in West Antarctica, is one of the widest on Earth and is larger than the state of Florida. But it’s just a faction of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which holds enough ice to raise sea level by up to 16 feet, according to NASA.
As the climate crisis has accelerated, this region has been closely monitored because of its rapid melting and its capacity for widespread coastal destruction.
Map of Thwaites Glacier shown in satellite imagery collected in February 2019. The track of the mission of the autonomous underwater vehicle is shown in orange. Changes in grounding line positions of Thwaites Glacier in the recent past shown by colored lines.
Alastair Graham/University of South Florida
In fact, the Thwaites Glacier itself has concerned scientists for decades. As early as 1973, researchers questioned whether it was at high risk of collapse. Nearly a decade later, they found that because the glacier is grounded to a seabed, rather than to dry land, warm ocean currents could melt the glacier from underneath, causing it to destabilize from below.
Other sources for lifting the sea level are under watch.
For one, Greenland’s rapidly melting ice sheet, so-called “zombie ice,” looks to eventually raise global sea level by at least 10.6 inches (27 centimeters), according to a study published late last month.
The prediction is more than twice as much as previously forecast, according to the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. “
“Zombie ice” is still attached to thicker areas of ice but is no longer getting replenished by parent glaciers now receiving less snow. Without replenishment, the doomed ice is melting from climate change and will inevitably raise seas, the authors argue.
“It’s dead ice. It’s just going to melt and disappear from the ice sheet,” William Colgan, a glaciologist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, told the Associated Press. “This ice has been consigned to the ocean, regardless of what climate (emissions) scenario we take now.”
His stance argues for global powers to work together not only to mitigate the impact of pollutants
and other factors driving global warming
but to spend and invest to adapt to big climate changes on Earth.
This will require a generation-defining level of creativity and commitment, not just from governments, but also from the private sector, the World Economic Forum has stressed. The world needs to invest an estimated $5.7 trillion annually in green infrastructure and other adaptation and mitigation efforts, the WEF says.
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