Scientists have been closely monitoring Antarctica’s “Doomsday” glacier since the 1970s. But recent studies show a faster rate of melting. And now the first-ever images from a pencil-shaped, 13-foot underwater robot reveal the critical softening point of the ice formation’s chaotic breakup, as scientists have described it.
So here are five things to know about what is officially called Thwaites Glacier — but has earned the notable nickname “Doomsday” glacier — including why its constant state of melting poses risks to rising sea levels, human health and safety.
What is the “Doomsday” glacier?
The Florida-sized glacier has gotten the nickname the “Doomsday” glacier because of how much ice it has and how much seas could rise if it all melts.
Officially known as the Thwaites Glacier, the ice formation in Antarctica at the southern tip of the Earth, is capable of pushing up sea levels by more than 2 feet (65 centimeters) if it detaches, although that’s expected take hundreds of years.
The latest developments come out of a massive $50 million multi-year international research effort to better understand the widest glacier in the world. You can find out more from the groups heading the effort to monitor Thwaites.
Read more: Skinny robot documents the forces eroding Antarctica’s Doomsday Glacier
And: Florida-sized ‘doomsday glacier’ in Antarctica is melting faster than thought, study says
Is the Doomsday glacier melting faster?
A study out late in 2022 did reveal evidence of faster melting, with the shape and size of Thwaites expected to show noticeable change within five years.
“Thwaites is really holding on today by its fingernails, and we should expect to see big changes over small time scales in the future — even from one year to the next — once the glacier retreats beyond a shallow ridge in its bed,” Robert Larter, a marine geophysicist and one of the 2022 study’s co-authors from the British Antarctic Survey, said in a release.
But it’s not just that the glacier is melting faster; new evidence points to it actually breaking apart.
“‘Thwaites is really holding on today by its fingernails.’”
Using a 13-foot pencil-shaped robot that swam under the grounding line where the ice first juts over the sea, scientists saw a shimmery critical point in Thwaites’ chaotic breakup, according to news out this week.
At this critical point, “it’s melting so quickly, there’s just material streaming out of the glacier,” said robot creator and polar scientist Britney Schmidt of Cornell University.
Before, scientists had no observations from this critical but hard-to-reach point on Thwaites, the Associated Press reports.
But with the robot named Icefin lowered down a slender 1,925-foot (587-meter) hole, scientists saw how important crevasses are in the fracturing of the ice, which takes the heaviest toll on the glacier, even more than melting.
“That’s how the glacier is falling apart. It’s not thinning and going away. It shatters,” said Schmidt, lead author of one of two studies in Wednesday’s journal Nature.
How does Antarctica’s Doomsday glacier impact the rest of the world?
The world’s oceans rising a few feet can be a big deal.
When sea levels rise as rapidly as they have been, even a small increase can have damaging effects on coastal habitats farther inland.
Higher seas can cause destructive erosion, wetland flooding, aquifer and agricultural soil contamination with salt, and lost habitats for fish, birds and plants, all of which impacts how we eat and our susceptibility to disease, National Geographic explains. For instance, flooding rivers well inland could be made more dangerous for longer if there’s no room for them to empty into the oceans.
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What’s the link between the “Doomsday” glacier, climate change and rising oceans?
Sea level rise is one of the most urgent climate threats, and many low-lying islands and coastal areas already experience its impacts, with loses to fishing industries and developed housing recorded yearly.
Rising seas make hurricanes and other storms more dangerous through higher storm surges and flooding, says the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Separately, warmer ocean temperatures also mean that hurricanes suck up warmer water more easily and hold it for longer, dumping potentially dangerous rains further inland.
As higher seas and related flooding erode and inundate islands and coastlines worldwide, infrastructure and livelihoods will be lost, and vast swaths of land will become uninhabitable.
About 10% of the world’s population, roughly 770 million people, live in coastal areas less than 5 meters, or roughly 15 feet, above the high tide line, the Woods Hole researchers says. Rising seas could force as many as 100 million of them to migrate due to rising seas by the end of the 21st century.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that global sea levels could rise between 1.4 and 2.7 feet by 2100, compared to the average 1986-2005 sea level, without major intervention to cool the atmosphere.
Higher seas could cost both developed and developing nations in lost lives, lost business and recovery costs. A Deloitte analysis shows that insufficient action on climate change and global warming could cost the U.S. economy alone $14.5 trillion in the next 50 years. A loss of this scale is equivalent to nearly 4% of GDP (gross domestic product) or $1.5 trillion in 2070 alone.
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Can we slow down melting glaciers like the Thwaites “Doomsday” glacier?
There was some good news revealed in the images from the underwater robot: Much of the flat underwater area explored is melting much slower than scientists expected.
But that’s only limited good news: That doesn’t really change how much ice is coming off the land part of the glacier and driving up sea levels, said Peter Davis, an oceanographer at British Antarctic Survey, who was a lead author of one of the latest studies.
Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, who wasn’t part of the studies, told the Associated Press that the results add to understanding how Thwaites is diminishing.
“Unfortunately, this is still going to be a major issue a century from now,” Scambos said. “But our better understanding gives us some time to take action to slow the pace of sea level rise.”
Climate scientists, and increasingly, global leaders, believe that limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, largely by limiting the burning of coal, oil CL00, +0.01% and gas NG00, -0.53%, could reduce sea level rise from melting glaciers and the vast Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets from about 10 inches to about five by 2100.
Earth is warmed when greenhouse gases emitted from combusting fossil fuels get trapped in the atmosphere, and healthy oceans are a major way to help cool Earth.
The U.S. and most major economies have said they aim to halve emissions by 2030, on the way to net-zero emissions by 2050. Political and cultural gaps in fighting climate change do persist.
Read: Planet will top 2 degrees of warming without quicker climate action, U.N. warns
The Associated Press contributed.
This article was originally published by Marketwatch.com. Read the original article here.