Thwaites Glacier and How it Contributes to Climate Change

Antarctica holds the largest chunk of ice on Earth, called the Thwaites glacier or dubbed as the “Doomsday” glacier. It extends for about 120 kilometers on the coast of West Antarctica, making it the size of Florida. The increasing sea levels are connected to this humongous glacier and it is now falling apart.

A representative image of a Glacier.

A huge part of the ice sheet in West Antarctica lies below the sea level, causing it to melt due to the rising temperatures as a result of Global Warming caused by humans. This is why West Antarctica is the most important piece of ice in the world with respect to climate change where lies, the Thwaites Glacier, which could be the most dangerous glacier in the world.

In the past 30 years, the front end of the glacier has lost a lot of ice causing it to retreat backward and the flow of the glacier has accelerated. The bedrock, which is the final resting grounding line of the glacier, has been shifting backward because of the warm ocean water that reaches the ice shelf. It has moved 14KM since the year 1992. The ice that was part of the glacier is now floating in the water, thus raising the sea levels. The amount of ice flowing from Thwaites has doubled over the past 30 years and has contributed to 4 percent of the global sea-level rise and is one of the largest contributors from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The total collapse of the glacier will take years but research shows that humans can slow down this process by curbing the production of Greenhouse gases. Some research suggests that it could collapse by the upcoming century and some suggest that it could be destroyed in this century itself.

“It is the most vulnerable place in Antarctica,” says Rob Larter, a marine geophysicist and UK principal investigator for the Thwaites Glacier Project at the British Antarctic Survey. The South Pole has warmed at three times the global rate since 1989. Once the Thwaites is completely gone, other ice will potentially start draining into the ocean too and Antarctica holds around 90 percent of the ice on the planet.

Thwaites behaves as a central position that is preventing the rest of the ice from draining currently.

Right now climate modelers say that sea levels will rise between 61cm and 110cm by the end of the century assuming the world keeps emitting greenhouse gases at the current level. On the positive side, Antarctica is not melting at a dangerous rate. Currently, it is contributing about 1mm per year to the sea level rise. But the rate of change of Thwaites has accelerated at an alarming rate. Even though Carbon dioxide emissions have fallen significantly during the worldwide lockdown due to COVID-19, the long-term effect is not positive. Carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for a century or longer, as it keeps increasing, the planet is getting warmer. In July, a heatwave in the Russian Arctic, near Siberia recorded their highest temperature of 38C triggering wildfires.

Ms. Johnson, a geologist at the British Antarctic Survey is studying the rocks underneath the glacier which will help to reveal its history which will in turn help predict how it will respond in the future and is part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, a 20m effort by the British and American scientists that is one of the most ambitious Antarctic research projects ever undertaken.

“We still don’t know that much about Thwaites. Most of the discoveries are yet to come”, says the geologist. Climate change is real.