What happened to the Thwaites Glacier and why did it turn out to be even more dangerous?


Glaciers in Antarctica are called a ticking time bomb. In connection with global warming, they are actively melting, as a result of which, over time, the level of the world ocean can rise to a critical level. The most dangerous glacier today is Thwaites. We have already talked about what its danger is. In short, this is a giant glacier that can raise the level of the world’s oceans by several meters if it breaks off and melts. But even this is not the most dangerous, since the destruction of Thwaites can lead to other glaciers sliding into the water. Then the consequences will be much more serious. But how likely is it that Thwaites will go free-swimming, and when might that happen? A recent study showed that the situation is much worse than previously thought.

What is Thwaites Glacier

Thwaites is a massive glacier, which is comparable in area to the whole of Great Britain or the US state of Florida. It is located in the western part of Antarctica. Recently, like many other glaciers, it has been melting at a high rate – annually losing about 50 billion tons of ice.

But this process will be greatly accelerated when it slides into the ocean and finds himself floating freely. But the most annoying thing is that it began to move towards the ocean twice as fast as it was just 30 years ago. According to experts, if Thwaites melts, the water level in the world’s oceans will rise by 0.9-3 meters.

Every year the “glacier of the apocalypse” loses 50 billion tons of ice

What happened to Thwaites Glacier

Thwaites Glacier could have been drifting in the waters of the ocean for a long time or disappeared altogether, but it is kept by ledges at the bottom. The glacier clings to them with its lower part, which ensures its braking. These protrusions, which scientists call “ground points”, determine how quickly the glacier will be in the ocean.

To find out what is currently happening with the glacier, an international team of researchers used an underwater robot. His task was to study ground points and create a map of them. The presence of such a map will make it possible to more accurately predict the behavior of the glacier in the future.

The map showed that Thwaites is currently held by a ledge that is 300 m below the surface of the water. And it is located at its very top. This suggests that soon it may “break” from it if warm waters melt the lower layers of the ice. The likelihood that this will happen in the near future is very high. Earlier, we said that an anomalous heat source was discovered under the glacier .

The surface of the ledge on which the Thwaites Glacier moved

Why Doomsday Glacier May Disappear Soon?

Robot Ran explored the surface of the seabed with an area of ​​more than 10 km for 20 hours. In particular, he paid attention to the area of ​​the ground point, along which the glacier glided earlier.

As scientists report in a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience , this section of the bottom resembles a comb. It contains about 160 parallel straight lines. The distance between them is from 1.6 to 10.5 meters. But on average they are from each other at a distance of up to 7 meters. But how did this “comb” form? According to scientists, the furrows are traces of the movement of the glacier. When the tide briefly lifted it, it moved forward, but then again rested on the bottom and pushed through it. In total, the site captured the movement of the glacier for 5.5 months.

Underwater robot that explored the bottom under the Thwaites Glacier

“At present, the Thwaites Glacier is really holding on to its nails. We should expect big changes in the near future,” says Robert Larter, a marine geophysicist and co-author of the study.

The study of the area passed by the glacier showed that the glacier moves most quickly during spring tides, since the tides are higher and the tides are insignificant. At the same time, based on the distance between the ribs, scientists were able to find out that between 2011 and 2019, the glacier slowed down three times. But you shouldn’t be happy about it. The slowdown is due to the fact that, as mentioned above, Thwaites was at the top of the ledge. That is, when it “breaks”, the speed of his movement will increase dramatically.

Once Thwaites retreats beyond the current “grounding point”, it will only take a couple of years for it to gain a high movement speed. Given that the lower part of the glacier is exposed to warm water, it can move from the top of the ledge very quickly. In addition, cracks appeared on the glacier. This suggests that much of it may break off before the bottom of the glacier is no longer in contact with the ground point.

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