The Science of Sustainability

Antarctic Glacier's Retreat "Unstoppable"

  • share this article
  • Facebook
  • Email
Thwaites_Grounding_Line_NASA

“All of our simulations show it will retreat at less than a millimeter of sea level rise per year for a couple of hundred years, and then, boom, it just starts to really go." Photo courtesy of James Yungel/NASA.

Global sea levels are rising at an accelerating rate. Google Maps of Sea Level Rises will even calculate the impact of rising oceans on your home town. Though the disappearance of Manhattan feels like a distant threat, recent research from the University of Washington indicates the melting of Antarctic glaciers may be happening sooner than previously expected.

A study published in the journal Science  focuses on the Thwaites Glacier, the largest ice sheet on the particularly vulnerable West Antarctic Ice Sheet. It uses new data from airborne radar developed at the University of Kansas to map the underlying bedrock. Earlier studies did not clarify whether there might be topographic features or "bumps" below the ice that would stabilize the glacier and slow its descent into the warmer surrounding waters. According to lead author Ian Joughin, a glaciologist at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory, “There’s no real stabilizing mechanism we can see.”

Glaciologist Eric Rignot of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California, Irvine, describes the decline of six rapidly melting glaciers in West Antarctica.

ThwaitesShelf

A high-resolution map of Thwaites Glacier’s thinning ice shelf. Photo courtesy of David Shean/UW.

The team combined the new radar data with data from instruments that measure the ice sheet’s rapidly thinning surface and UW’s own satellite-derived measurements of ice surface speeds. They developed a computer model that accurately reproduces the glacier’s ice loss during the past 18 years, and predicts the future melt. Their peek beneath the icy surface reveals the leading edge of the glacier resting on a ridge that physically limits its descent into the warmer surrounding waters. Once the heavy ice sheet melts back beyond this ridge, it will discharge ice to the ocean at a faster rate.

“Once it really gets past this shallow part, it’s going to start to lose ice very rapidly." – Glaciologist Ian Joughin

Depending on the rate of ocean warming, collapse of the Thwaites is expected to happen in between 200 and 1,000 years. And since the Thwaites Glacier acts as a linchpin, with its disappearance the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet is likely to follow rapidly, raising ocean levels by 10-13 feet. Program that into Google Maps of Sea Level Rises, and you might be surprised.

Source: University of Washington

Related

Explore: , , , ,

Category: Blog, Climate, Water

  • share this article
  • Facebook
  • Email
Katie Jennings

About the Author ()

Katie Jennings returns to KCTS as QUEST Northwest Coordinating Producer. A public television veteran, she has produced numerous award-winning national documentaries and series including Fire on the Rim and Teachings of the Tree People. Katie served as Head of Educational Media at the outdoor learning center IslandWood on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, where she developed and produced educational projects for National Geographic and the National Science Foundation. She recently completed a Master's degree in Media Psychology and Social Change.
  • Bjonz

    A 10-13 foot rise in mean high tide lines would wipe out a significant part of the one percenter's wealth from San Francisco to San Diego. It would redistribute said wealth to tens of thousands of California property owners who would then live along the newly created shoreline. According to current liberal economic philosophy, that should be an ideal outcome. Where is the downside and how can we make this happen much faster Katie?

    • ♡ Charlene

      No, we will be forced to feed and comfort the saps that get flooded on the coast as they become refugees into middle California.

      • Bjonz

        Are you suggesting that liberal's karma often runs over their dogma??

        • ♡ Charlene

          Only that we will be footing the bill over here. They wouldn't notice their karma hitting them in the face.

  • Joseph Kool

    Never gonna happen

    • jnlee99

      sorry to feed the troll, but if anyone has their head still in the sand I would simply say that the global extreme weather change is palpable if one does any travel at all. Just within last 10 years the changes are stunning. I've visited places that went from average January temperature of -30 C to above freezing!

  • jnlee99

    So, Manhattan will need to build a dike around it similar to the dikes around Holland. And Netherlands will need to shore up the existing dikes. It will be much bigger challenge to deal with Holland's dikes given that they snake around the whole land.