Doomsday Glacier “Holding On by Its Fingernails” – Spine-Chilling Retreat Could Raise Sea Levels by 10 Feet

Thwaites Glacier Nathaniel B Palmer

The R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer photographed from a drone at Thwaites Glacier ice front in February 2019. Credit: Alexandra Mazur/University of Gothenburg

Faster in the Past: New seafloor images – the highest resolution of any taken off the West Antarctic Ice Sheet – upend understanding of Thwaites Glacier retreat.

At times in its past, the retreat of the massive Thwaites Glacier was even quicker than it is today, heightening concerns for its future.

The Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, also known as the Doomsday Glacier, has been an elephant in the room for scientists trying to make global sea level rise predictions.

This massive ice stream is already in a phase of fast retreat (a “collapse” when viewed on geological timescales). This has led to widespread concern about exactly how much, or how fast, it may give up its ice to the ocean.

Thwaites Ice Shelf Multibeam Bathymetry

A 3D-rendered view of the multibeam bathymetry (seafloor shape) colored by depth, collected by Rán across a seabed ridge, just in front of Thwaites Ice Shelf. Credit: Alastair Graham/University of South Florida

The potential impact of Thwaites’ retreat is spine-chilling: a total loss of the glacier and surrounding icy basins could raise sea level from three to 10 feet. The glacier is about the size of Florida.

“Thwaites is really holding on today by its fingernails, and we should expect to see big changes over small timescales in the future–even from one year to the next–once the glacier retreats beyond a shallow ridge in its bed.” — Robert Larter

A new study, which was published in Nature Geoscience on September 5, adds cause for concern. For the first time, scientists mapped in high-resolution a critical area of the seafloor in front of the glacier, providing them with a window into how fast Thwaites retreated and moved in the past. The research was led by marine geophysicist Alastair Graham at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science.

The stunning imagery reveals geologic features that are new to science, and also provides a kind of crystal ball to see into Thwaites’ future. In people and ice sheets alike, past behavior is key to understanding future behavior.

The research team documented more than 160 parallel ridges that were created, like a footprint, as the glacier’s leading edge retreated and bobbed up and down with the daily tides.

“It’s as if you are looking at a tide gauge on the seafloor,” Graham said. “It really blows my mind how beautiful the data are.”

Beauty aside, what’s alarming is that the rate of Thwaites’ retreat that scientists have documented more recently is small compared to the fastest rates of change in its past, said Graham.

To understand Thwaites’ past retreat, the scientists analyzed the rib-like formations submerged 700 meters (about 2,300 feet or just under half a mile) beneath the polar ocean and factored in the tidal cycle for the region, as predicted by computer models, to show that one rib must have been formed every single day.

Rán Kongsberg HUGIN Autonomous Underwater Vehicle

Rán, a Kongsberg HUGIN autonomous underwater vehicle, amongst sea ice in front of Thwaites Glacier, after a 20-hour mission mapping the seafloor. Credit: Anna Wåhlin/University of Gothenburg

At some point in the last 200 years, over a duration of less than six months, the front of the glacier lost contact with a seabed ridge and retreated at a rate of more than 2.1 kilometers per year (1.3 miles per year). This is twice the rate documented using satellites between 2011 and 2019.

“Our results suggest that pulses of very rapid retreat have occurred at Thwaites Glacier in the last two centuries, and possibly as recently as the mid-20th Century,” Graham said.

“Thwaites is really holding on today by its fingernails, and we should expect to see big changes over small timescales in the future–even from one year to the next–once the glacier retreats beyond a shallow ridge in its bed,” said marine geophysicist and study co-author Robert Larter from the British Antarctic Survey.

Thwaites Glacier Landsat 8 Satellite Map

Map of Thwaites Glacier shown in Landsat 8 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. Credit: Alastair Graham/University of South Florida

To collect the imagery and supporting geophysical data, the research team, which included scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Sweden, launched a state-of-the-art orange robotic vehicle loaded with imaging sensors called ‘Rán’from the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer during an expedition in 2019.

Rán, which is operated by scientists at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, embarked on a 20-hour mission that was as risky as it was serendipitous, Graham said. It mapped an area of the seabed about the size of Houston in front of the glacier – and did so in extreme conditions during an unusual summer notable for its lack of sea ice.

This allowed researchers to access the glacier front for the first time in history.

“This was a pioneering study of the ocean floor, made possible by recent technological advancements in autonomous ocean mapping and a bold decision by the Wallenberg foundation to invest in this research infrastructure,” said Anna Wåhlin, a physical oceanographer from the University of Gothenburg who deployed Rán at Thwaites. “The images Ran collected give us vital insights into the processes happening at the critical junction between the glacier and the ocean today.”

“It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime mission,” said Graham, who said the team would like to sample the seabed sediments directly so they can more accurately date the ridge-like features.

“But the ice closed in on us pretty quickly and we had to leave before we could do that on this expedition,” he said.

Alastair Graham and Robert Larter

THOR scientists Alastair Graham (right) and Robert Larter (left) look on in awe at the crumbling ice face of the Thwaites Glacier margin, from the bridge deck of the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer. Credit: Frank Nitsche

While many questions remain, one thing’s for sure: It used to be that scientists thought of the Antarctic ice sheets as sluggish and slow to respond, but that’s simply not true, according to Graham.

“Just a small kick to Thwaites could lead to a big response,” he said.

According to the United Nations, roughly 40 percent of the human population lives within 60 miles of the coast.

“This study is part of a cross-disciplinary collective effort to understand the Thwaites Glacier system better,” said Tom Frazer, dean of the USF College of Marine Science, “and just because it’s out of sight, we can’t have Thwaites out of mind. This study is an important step forward in providing essential information to inform global planning efforts.”

Reference: “Rapid retreat of Thwaites Glacier in the pre-satellite era” by Alastair G. C. Graham, Anna Wåhlin, Kelly A. Hogan, Frank O. Nitsche, Karen J. Heywood, Rebecca L. Totten, James A. Smith, Claus-Dieter Hillenbrand, Lauren M. Simkins, John B. Anderson, Julia S. Wellner and Robert D. Larter, 5 September 2022, Nature Geoscience.
DOI: 10.1038/s41561-022-01019-9

The study was supported by the National Science Foundation and the UK Natural Environment Research Council through the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration.

The 2019 expedition was the first in a five-year project dubbed THOR, which stands for Thwaites Offshore Research, and also included team members from a sister project called the Thwaites-Amundsen Regional Survey and Network Integrating Atmosphere-Ice-Ocean Processes, or TARSAN.

13 Comments on "Doomsday Glacier “Holding On by Its Fingernails” – Spine-Chilling Retreat Could Raise Sea Levels by 10 Feet"

  1. Sorry Coasters, You gotta go…

  2. Clark M. Thomas | September 7, 2022 at 5:58 am | Reply

    Malthus said population is controlled three ways. One of which is “positive checks.” A rapid rise of ten or more feet in the global ocean would do the trick for a big portion of humanity. That increase will accompany the loss of much of the world’s most valuable resources for maintaining human civilization. So it’s a “win” and a “loss.” My guess is that civilization itself will be the big loser. Maybe we all will “get lucky” and kill ourselves with global thermonuclear war before the global ice melts. Good-bye “peak humanity.”

  3. This is actually a hit piece. These Nerds need more money to eat so they bang the Armageddon drum to get more grants. Copy/Paste their last fear mongering article. Notice I said article? Not science paper. You never see science. Just opinions. Well, my f*@king opinion is just as good as some nerd. And I say, we’re fine. Just don’t eat anything from a store.

    • It literally cites the paper at the bottom of the article. Here’s the link for you again, since you seem to have missed it:

      https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-022-01019-9

    • 10th Man is the biggest Nerd. | September 7, 2022 at 9:15 am | Reply

      “Nerds”? Are you 12 years old? No your opinion is not as good as theirs, because their opinion is based on their education in the field, and the research they have completed. Your more than welcome to offer an educated opinion on whatever field you’re in. I assume that would be window licking and the consumption of lead paint chips.

    • So yeah, we should definitely listen to your opinion first since they are just nerdy scientists and all. Besides, your completely uninformed opinion is alot easier to take. thanks.

  4. “… the rate of Thwaites’ retreat that scientists have documented more recently is small compared to the fastest rates of change in its past, …”

    And that was when the concentration of CO2 was lower than today. Might it be that something other than ‘climate change’ is driving the melting?

    Eventually, the glaciers will retreat to the point that they are no longer floating, and the proposed mechanism of melting — ocean water above the freezing temperature circulating under the ice — will cease to be effective. Thus, there will be a halt to the rapid rise of sea level. The article doesn’t make it clear what time interval is proposed for a 10′ rise, or if they have taken into account the abrupt change in melting once the ice is firmly grounded.

    “… roughly 40 percent of the human population lives within 60 miles of the coast.”

    This is really a non sequitur. What is relevant is the percentage of people who live within 10 feet (elevation) of sea level. Is this incompetence, or an attempt to scare people?

  5. Margaret Bruce | September 7, 2022 at 8:06 am | Reply

    Humans are pretty good at muddling along. My guess is that whatever passes for ‘peak humanity’ is an ephemera, anyway. Sea levels will rise, climate will change, that will spell disaster for many, but not the end. Just a lot of change – maybe crisis, chaos, and upheaval – but not likely ‘the end’. Humanity won’t fail unless our imaginations do. We are very capable of imagining a successful future – one that looks a lot different than today’s circumstances, but successful anyway. Will we DO that, is the more pressing question.

  6. Could some of the 91 active volcanoes in Antarctica be driving the melting?

  7. Michael Barnes | September 7, 2022 at 9:13 am | Reply

    This math simply doesn’t add up. Florida is 65,000 sq miles. The oceans consist of 140,000,000 square miles, which means about 2000 Floridas equal the surface space of the oceans. The glacier is about 3000 inches thick. There is no way this comes to ten feet of sea level increase. I think it’s more like 1.3 inches. Please correct me if I’m wrong

    • I think you took the “800-1200m” as the average height of the glacier Google tells us, and converted 800m to 3000 inches. But 800m is 3000 FEET, as a lower estimate.

  8. Hymie Porkenstein | September 7, 2022 at 3:34 pm | Reply

    I don’t beleive anything these clowns say. I am 73 and I remember in 1970 they said we would run out of oil by 1990!!, they said ozone hole was huge and can’t be repaired, they claim records broken when there were no historical data to support their false claims..

  9. Michael Barnes | September 8, 2022 at 4:24 am | Reply

    If you divide 3000 feet by 2000, then you get 1.3 feet – not 10 feet. You divide by 2000 since that is the number of times this glacier’s area would fit over the surface of the combined oceans.

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