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Glacier the size of Florida is 'hanging on by its fingernails'

Glacier the size of Florida is 'hanging on by its fingernails'

The Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica is causing major concern amongst scientists

Scientists have issued a stark warning as a glacier the size of Florida is 'hanging on by its fingernails'.

The Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica is causing major concern as it appears to already be in a phase of fast retreat, according to a new study.

Dubbed as the 'Doomsday glacier', it has always been used as a rough ball park in predicting the global rise in sea level.

If the glacier was to totally melt, the sea level could rise from three to a whopping ten feet.

In order to gather sufficient evidence, a group of scientists from the United States, 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.

The team went on a 20-hour mission, which basically mapped an area of the seabed in front of the glacier about the size of Houston.

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

A more recent study - titled 'Rapid retreat of Thwaites Glacier in the pre-satellite era' - was led by marine geophysicist Alastair Graham at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science (USF CMS).

Anna Wåhlin/University of Gothenburg

It has now been found that at some point in the last 200 years, over a duration of less than six months, the front of glacier lost contact with a seabed ridge and retreated at a rate of more than 2.1 kilometres per year (1.3 miles per year), which happened to be 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,” said Graham.

“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. 

"It was truly a once in a lifetime mission,” said Graham.

Scientists Alastair Graham (right) and Robert Larter (left).
Frank Nitsche

Anna Wåhlin, a physical oceanographer from the University of Gothenburg who deployed Rán at Thwaites, said: “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 into this research infrastructure.

“The images Ran collected give us vital insights into the processes happening at the critical junction between the glacier and the ocean today."

“This study is part of a cross-disciplinary collective effort to understand the Thwaites Glacier system better and just because it’s out of sight, we can’t have Thwaites out of mind," said Tom Frazer, dean of the USF CMS.

“This study is an important step forward in providing essential information to inform global planning efforts.”

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Featured Image Credit: Alexandra Mazur/University of Gothenburg/NASA/ZUMA Press Wire Service/Shutterstock

Topics: Climate Change, Antarctica