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​Thwaites, Antarctica’s Doomsday Glacier is Melting Too Quickly, Research Says

​Thwaites is sometimes referred to as the doomsday glacier. Why? Because this Britain-sized structure in western Antarctica is melting at a rather rapid pace, retreating by approximately half a mile (2,625 feet) per year, according to the latest estimates.

Researchers calculate the glacier will lose all its ice in more or less than 200 to 600 years, and when it does, it will raise sea levels by around 1.6 to 2 feet (0.5 meters). However, the sea-level increase wouldn’t be all. ​Thwaites​’ nickname comes mostly from what would happen after it loses its ice.

Antarctica Glaciers are Melting at Rapid Pace

Currently, the glacier is a buffer between the sea and other glaciers. Its collapse could see the neighboring ice structures in western Antarctica go down with it. Moreover, that process would raise sea levels by about 10 feet, forever submerging many coastal areas, such as parts of New York, Miami, and the Netherlands.

“It’s a major change, a rewriting of the coastline,” David Holland, a professor of atmospheric science at New York University who contributes research to the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, told PBS NewsHour in February.

This month, two new research added some new details to the picture. A study published last week in the Cryosphere found that warm ocean currents may be melting Thwaites​’ underbelly ice.

[Image Credit: Lhermitte et al., PNAS, 2020]
Research published Monday, meanwhile, used satellite imagery to show that parts of Thwaites​ and another close ice structure, the Pine Island Glacier, are melting more quickly than previously estimated. That study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

What’s Happening to the ​Thwaites

The melting of the ​Thwaites and Pine Island Glaciers respond to around 5 percent of global sea-level rise.

However, it is not the ​Thwaites that’s melting. The Antarctic ice sheet is allegedly also losing structure six times faster than it was in the 1980s, shedding 252 billion tons per year, from 40 billion tons annually around 40 years ago.

“What the satellites are showing us is a glacier coming apart at the seams,” Ted Scambos, a senior scientist at the University of Colorado, told NASA in February.

This accelerated shedding is taking place in part because natural buffers holding the Thwaites​ and Pine Glaciers in place are rupturing, new research says.

The new PNAS study discovered that trim edges on the Pine Island and Thwaites​ Glaciers are becoming weaker and breaking apart, which could make the ice spill into the ocean. The imminent loss of the Thwaites​ Glacier has prompted the U.S. and the U.K. to create an international agency in order to study it.

Crevasses near the grounding line of Pine Island Glacier Antarctica. [Image Credit: Ian Joughin/University of Washington]
That organization, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, analyzes the glacier with icebreaker ships that can make way through thick ice sheets.

How Pine Islands Glacier is Doing

Researchers estimated that the Pine Island Glacier​ had lost a part the size of Los Angeles in the past six

“These are the first signs we see that Pine Island ice shelf is disappearing,” Stef Lhermitte, a satellite expert and lead author on the PNAS study, told the Washington Post. “This damage is difficult to heal.”

According to a 2018 report, sea-level rise could impact as many as 800 million people by 2050. The report, coming from the C40 Cities climate network, found that sea-level rise could pose risks to the power supply to 470 million people are regularly expose 1.6 billion people to incredibly high temperatures.

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