Story at a glance

  • The Thwaites Glacier is one of Antarctica's fastest melting glaciers.
  • If the glacier were to melt, it would drain a mass of water the size of Great Britain.
  • Over 30 years, the amount of ice flowing out of Thwaites and neighboring glaciers has nearly doubled.

Researchers for the first time have discovered unusually warm water underneath Antarctica’s so-called “doomsday glacier,” which could speed up the melting of the Florida-sized chunk of ice and impact sea-level rise around the world. 

A team of scientists earlier this month created a nearly 2,000-foot deep access hole in the ice and dropped a device to measure the temperature of the water below the Thwaites Glacier’s surface. 

The waters at the ground line, where the glacier meets the sea, were found to be more than 2 degrees above normal freezing temperature. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“Warm waters in this part of the world, as remote as they may seem, should serve as a warning to all of us about the potential dire changes to the planet brought about by climate change,” David Holland, director of New York University’s Environmental Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, said in a statement

“If these waters are causing glacier melt in Antarctica, resulting in changes in sea level would be felt in more inhabited parts of the world,” Holland said. 

The Thwaites Glacier is one of Antarctica's fastest melting glaciers, and researchers see it as the most significant glacier in terms of global sea-level rise.

If the glacier were to melt, it would drain a mass of water that is roughly the size of Great Britain, and its collapse would raise global sea levels by almost 3 feet, potentially overwhelming existing populated areas. 

For the past three decades the amount of ice flowing out of Thwaites and nearby glaciers has nearly doubled, and ice draining from the glaciers into the Amundsen Sea accounts for about 4 percent of global sea-level rise. 

Scientists have had their eye on the melting glacier for more than a decade, but the exact cause had previously not been determined. 

“The fact that such warm water was just now recorded by our team along a section of the Thwaites grounding zone where we have known the glacier is melting suggests that it may be undergoing an unstoppable retreat that has huge implications for global sea level rise,” Holland said.

Published on Jan 31, 2020