A Rare Look Below the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ Reveals Surprising Melting

Thwaites Glacier is often called “the Doomsday Glacier” because its collapse could cause catastrophic sea level rise

Researchers use a hot water drill on Thwaites Glacier, which two new studies show is melting in an unexpected manner. Icefin / ITGC / Schmidt

Officially called the Thwaites Glacier, the icy behemoth has earned the nickname “Doomsday Glacier,” thanks to its significant potential to contribute to sea level rise. If the whole thing were to liquefy in the coming centuries, global sea levels would rise by about two feet, and more of Antarctica might be left vulnerable to melting.

Per PBS:

If Antarctica were to lose only Thwaites, the Earth’s oceans would rise by about two to three feet or more, researchers believe. That’s enough to cause major flooding in New York City and completely engulf some low-lying cities like New Orleans and Venice, Italy, with seawater.

And if the loss of Thwaites triggered the collapse of the rest of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the global sea level could rise by more than 10 feet.. . . But “coastal sea rise is a problem for communities in itself,” she says. If the seas were to rise by 10 feet, Holland says, the effects on countries like Bangladesh, coastal states like Florida, and major cities like New York, London, and Shanghai will be “profound.”  Higher seas can also mean intensified storms. “On the East Coast we’re concerned because we already see sea level rise [playing out] in the background,” says Cutler, who’s based in Virginia. “Storms are able to encroach inland.” Even a minor hurricane, which wouldn’t cause intense flooding today, Garner says, could have a much worse effect in deeper coastal waters.  And to make matters worse, storms themselves seem to be growing. Garner’s research shows that from 850 to 1850, storms similar in size to Hurricane Sandy were likely to occur about once every 500 years in New York. But if our current patterns of carbon dioxide emissions continue—and glacial melt along with them—Hurricane Sandy will be a 5-year storm in New York by 2100.

The Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica is melting in hidden ways that could lead to its fast collapse. (Image credit: NASA)

Thwaites continues to be one of the fastest receding glaciers and least stable ice shelves in Antarctica, and it is currently responsible for roughly 4 percent of the overall sea level rise of 1.5 inches per decade.

Warm water found under Thwaites.

Through the rapid melting of the crevasses, deterioration of the glacier has actually been able to occur under milder conditions than predicted. “That means that it takes less to get this degree of change,” explains Britney Schmidt, an Earth and planetary scientist at Cornell University and lead author of the other new study published in Nature, to Wired’s Matt Simon.

Changing winds and currents carry warm water beneath Thwaites Glacier, accelerating ice melt on its underside. As the glacier loses its grip on the seafloor, the grounding line shifts back, hastening retreat. Image Credit: International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration; ‘

“If an ice shelf and a glacier are in balance, the ice coming off the continent will match the amount of ice being lost through melting and iceberg calving. What we have found is that despite small amounts of melting there is still rapid glacier retreat, so it seems that it doesn’t take a lot to push the glacier out of balance,” he said in a statement. Schmidt’s team of researchers used a robot called Icefin to go underwater and into the glacier through a 600-meter deep borehole created in 2019 by a research drill. The robot was able to get photos, video and other data from both the ocean floor and the underside of the glacier as it moved, according to the researchers.


Smithsonian, Space. Com. PBS

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