Earth’s Most Important Glacier Has a Gaping Cavity

Of all the ice in all the planet’s oceans, there is one glacier that is more important than all the others.  This is the Thwaites Glacier and it is the largest outflow channel for the delicate West Antarctic Ice Sheet.  Unfortunately, this glacier now has a massive subterranean hole. 

The latest data suggests that this hollowed-out section of the Thwaites Glacier has reached a size about two-thirds that of Manhattan.  Expanding to about 1,000 feet in height, it is now big enough to theoretically contain 14 billion tons of ice.  While the sheer size is enough to marvel about, the group of scientists who discovered the chasm think most of it probably formed in only the past three years. 

Still, it is important to note that the glacier itself is about the size of Florida, so the hole is only a fraction of the total size. But its not necessarily the overall size of the hole that matters: what is important is the trend this phenomenon signifies the glacier’s pending collapse, and a rate that is faster than they had expected. 

This is a shocking discovery, to say the least, but it is also a study with unprecedented international cooperation.  And it hints that the Thwaites Glacier could actually be melting at a rate that will cause upwards of 10 feet of sea level rise over the next hundred years.  Depending on how the glacier melts, it could even affect this generation, flooding coastal cities and disrupting everyday life as we know it. 

Study author Eric Rignot comments, “Understanding the details of how the ocean melts away this glacier is essential to project its impact on sea level rise in the coming decades.”

Now, over the past few years, scientists have already concluded the inevitable collapse of the Thwaites Glacier.  But while the glacier’s demise has been clear, uncertainty about its remaining lifespan remains a hot issue, no pun intended. 

Study lead author Pietro Milillo also comments, “[The size of] a cavity under a glacier plays an important role in melting.  As more heat and water get under the glacier, it melts faster.”

Fortunately, dramatic changes in emission regulation—and any other efforts we can put forth—can help to reduce catastrophic collapse of the Thwaites Glacier by as much as 10 percent, within this century. 

The results of this recent study have been published in the journal Science Advances.