Thwaites: Antarctica’s tipping point


iceberg during daytime
Glacier collapse could lead to a global disaster | Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | April 30th, 2019

McMurdo, a small group of buildings in the Antarctic meant solely as a pass-through for scientists of different fields, sits 800 miles away from a glacier roughly the size of Florida. This glacier–dubbed the “Thwaites”–is difficult to reach and difficult to study, but this enormous formation of ice could have dire consequences for our civilization should it collapse in our oceans.

Thwaites’ wedge shape and its massive size make it something to be contended with. In 2008, when Sridhar Anandakrishnan and five others from Penn State journeyed to the glacier, they found that it was losing ice at an alarming rate. The ongoing losses from Thwaites already accounts for a global sea level rise of roughly 4%. Thwaites is likely a support glacier, a “cork in a wine bottle“, meaning that its total collapse could lead to more glacier disaster, forcing us to contend with rising oceans that we may not be prepared to deal with.

Sridhar’s team, a year after their initial exploration, returned to the glacier to begin measuring its base, some 4,000 feet below the water. By drilling boreholes in the icy ground and setting off explosive charges, the team could read the seismic waves generated by the charge as it reverberated off of the glacier bed. Though much information has been gathered about Thwaites, there is still no solid explanation for its accelerated rate of collapse.

Thwaites could completely collapse in as soon as a century, especially since its loss of ice may be unstoppable. In the meantime, scientists are risking life and limb in the antarctic’s bitter cold, trying to uncover the mystery of this ticking time bomb.

 

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