Ocean water is rushing miles underneath the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ with potentially dire impacts on sea level rise | CNN (2024)

CNN

Ocean water is pushing miles beneath Antarctica’s “Doomsday Glacier,” making it more vulnerable to melting than previously thought, according to new research which used radar data from space to perform an X-ray of the crucial glacier.

As the salty, relatively warm ocean water meets the ice, it’s causing “vigorous melting” underneath the glacier and could mean global sea level rise projections are being underestimated, according to the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica — nicknamed the “Doomsday Glacier” because its collapse could cause catastrophic sea level rise — is the world’s widest glacier and roughly the size of Florida. It’s also Antarctica’s most vulnerable and unstable glacier, in large part because the land on which it sits slopes downward, allowing ocean waters to eat away at its ice.

Thwaites, which already contributes 4% to global sea level rise, holds enough ice to raise sea levels by more than 2 feet. But because it also acts as a natural dam to the surrounding ice in West Antarctica,scientists have estimatedits complete collapse could ultimately lead to around 10 feet of sea level rise — a catastrophe for the world’s coastal communities.

The Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, also known as the "Doomsday glacier" due to the huge risk its melting poses to global sea levels. NASA/OIB/Jeremy Harbeck Related article So-called Doomsday Glacier is ‘in trouble,’ scientists say after finding surprising formations under ice shelf

Many studies have pointed to the immense vulnerabilities of Thwaites. Global warming, driven by humans burning fossil fuels, has left ithanging on “by its fingernails,” according to a 2022 study.

This latest research adds a new and alarming factor into projections of its fate.

A team of glaciologists — led by scientists from the University of California, Irvine — used high resolution satellite radar data, collected between March and June last year, to create an X-ray of the glacier. This allowed them to build a picture of changes to Thwaites’ “grounding line,” the point at which the glacier rises from the seabed and becomes a floating ice shelf. Grounding lines are vital to the stability of ice sheets, and a key point of vulnerability for Thwaites, but have been difficult to study.

“In the past, we had only sporadic data to look at this,” said Eric Rignot, professor of Earth system science at the University of California at Irvine and a co-author on the study. “In this new data set, which is daily and over several months, we have solid observations of what is going on.”

Ocean water is rushing miles underneath the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ with potentially dire impacts on sea level rise | CNN (2)

A view of the tidal motion at Thwaites Glacier, West Antarctica, recorded by Finland’s ICEYE commercial satellite mission, based on images acquired on May 11, 12 and 13, 2023.

They observed seawater pushing beneath the glacier over many miles, and then moving out again, following the daily rhythm of the tides. When the water flows in, it’s enough to “jack up” the surface of the glacier by centimeters, Rignot told CNN.

He suggested the term “grounding zone” may be more apt than grounding line, as it can move nearly 4 miles over a 12-hour tidal cycle, according to their research.

The speed of the seawater, which moves considerable distances over a short time period, increases glacier melt because as soon as the ice melts, freshwater is washed out and replaced with warmer seawater, Rignot said.

“This process of widespread, enormous seawater intrusion will increase the projections of sea level rise from Antarctica,” he added.

Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, who was not involved in the study, called the research “fascinating and important.”

“This finding gives a process that, as yet, is not factored into models,” he told CNN. And while these results only apply to certain areas of the glacier, he said, “this could speed up the pace of ice loss in our forecasts.”

One uncertainty to be unraveled is whether the rush of seawater beneath Thwaites is a new phenomenon or whether it’s been significant but unknown for a long time, said James Smith, a marine geologist at the British Antarctic Survey, who was not involved in the study.

“Either way, it’s clearly an important process that needs to be incorporated into ice sheet models,” he told CNN.

The floating ice edge at Thwaites Glacier margin, photographed in February 2019. Robert Larter Related article ‘Doomsday glacier,’ which could raise sea level by several feet, is holding on ‘by its fingernails,’ scientists say

Noel Gourmelen, a professor of Earth observation at the University of Edinburgh, said use of radar data for this study was interesting. “Ironically it’s by going to space, using our growing satellite capabilities, that we’re learning much more about this environment,” he told CNN.

There are still many unknowns on what the study’s findings mean for the future of Thwaites, said Gourmelen who was not involved in the research. It is also unclear how widespread this process is around Antarctica, he told CNN, “although it is highly likely that this is happening elsewhere as well.”

A regime change

Antarctica, an isolated and complex continent, appears to be increasingly vulnerable to the climate crisis.

In a separate study, also published Monday, researchers from the British Antarctic Survey looked at the reasons for the record low levels of sea ice surrounding Antarctica last year.

Analyzing satellite data and using climate models, they found this record low would have been “extremely unlikely to happen without the influence of climate change.”

Ocean water is rushing miles underneath the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ with potentially dire impacts on sea level rise | CNN (4)

Sea ice around Rothera Point, on Adelaide Island to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Sea ice melting doesn’t directly affect sea level rise because it’s already floating, but it leaves coastal ice sheets and glaciers exposed to waves and warm ocean waters, making them much more vulnerable to melting and breaking up.

The researchers also used climate models to predict the potential speed of recovery from such extreme sea ice loss and found that even after two decades, not all the ice will return.

“The impacts of Antarctic sea ice staying low for over twenty years would be profound, including on local and global weather,” Louise Sime, a co-author on the BAS study, said in a statement.

The findings add to evidence over the last few years that the region is facing a “lasting regime shift,” the authors wrote.

Ocean water is rushing miles underneath the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ with potentially dire impacts on sea level rise | CNN (2024)

FAQs

Ocean water is rushing miles underneath the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ with potentially dire impacts on sea level rise | CNN? ›

They observed seawater pushing beneath the glacier over many miles, and then moving out again, following the daily rhythm of the tides. When the water flows in, it's enough to “jack up” the surface of the glacier by centimeters, Rignot told CNN.

How much will sea level rise if a Doomsday Glacier melts? ›

The melting glacier already accounts for 10% of global sea level rise, but it's estimated that once it does collapse, it could cause a 65 centimeter—or a roughly just over two foot—increase in global sea levels over the course of a few years.

Would there be a rise in sea level if the glacier were to melt? ›

When this ice melts or calves off, the water flows into the oceans and sea levels rise. If all glaciers and ice sheets melted, global sea level would rise by more than 195 feet (60 meters).

What would flood if the Doomsday Glacier melted? ›

If the Doomsday Glacier were to suddenly collapse, global sea levels would rise by as much as 65cm - which would result in disastrous consequences.

What is so alarming about the Thwaites Glacier? ›

The Thwaites Glacier holds enough ice to raise sea levels by about three meters (approximately ten feet) if it were to collapse entirely. Scientists fear that such an event could happen within the next few decades if current trends continue.

What happens to Florida if the Doomsday Glacier melts? ›

Like the name implies, melting of the world's widest glacier will have a big impact, amplifying far-reaching sea level rise to coastal areas as distant as Florida.

What will Earth look like if the Doomsday Glacier melts? ›

What happens if the Doomsday Glacier melts? As it melts, Thwaites could cause ocean levels to rise as much as 2 feet, researchers say. But the glacier is also a natural dam to other ice in West Antarctica.

What would the United States look like if all the ice melted? ›

The entire Atlantic seaboard would vanish, along with Florida and the Gulf Coast. In California, San Francisco's hills would become a cluster of islands and the Central Valley a giant bay. The Gulf of California would stretch north past the latitude of San Diego—not that there'd be a San Diego.

How much will the sea level rise by 2050? ›

Sea level along the U.S. coastline is projected to rise, on average, 10 - 12 inches (0.25 - 0.30 meters) in the next 30 years (2020 - 2050), which will be as much as the rise measured over the last 100 years (1920 - 2020).

What will the world look like with rising sea levels? ›

If we limit warming to 1.5 degrees, sea level rise would still affect land inhabited by 510 million people today. But if the planet breaches 3 degrees, the high-tide line could encroach above land where more than 800 million people live, a recent study found.

What glacier could end the world? ›

At roughly 80 miles across, Thwaites is the widest glacier in the world and roughly the size of Florida. It has been nicknamed the "Doomsday Glacier" for the catastrophic effects its thawing could have on global sea-level rise.

What was found under Doomsday Glacier? ›

A view of the tidal motion at Thwaites Glacier, West Antarctica, recorded by Finland's ICEYE commercial satellite mission, based on images acquired on May 11, 12 and 13, 2023. They observed seawater pushing beneath the glacier over many miles, and then moving out again, following the daily rhythm of the tides.

How serious is Doomsday Glacier? ›

Scientists are warning a melting glacier near Antarctica could lead to catastrophic conditions in the next 20 years. Warm sea water is pushing underneath the Thwaites Glacier, also dubbed the doomsday glacier, which is causing sea levels to rise.

How quickly could Thwaites Glacier collapse? ›

Thwaites is melting, and at risk of melting a lot more. That “16 feet of sea level rise” projection is also accurate. What's missing is the timescale. Scientists are concerned that only part of Thwaites—its Eastern Ice Shelf, the part of its body that floats above the ocean—will collapse within 10 years.

What happens if the Doomsday Glacier breaks? ›

What happens to Thwaites will have global reverberations. The glacier already contributes 4% of sea level rise as it sheds billions of tons of ice a year into the ocean. Its complete collapse could raise sea levels by more than 2 feet.

What did they find in Antarctica in 2024? ›

The finding took place in January 2024 when Viking's expedition vessel, the Viking Octantis®, visited Astrolabe Island, a three-mile-long island, located in the Bransfield Strait of the Trinity Peninsula in Antarctica. Astrolabe Island is home to a colony of chinstrap penguins that had not been surveyed since 1987.

How much would the sea level rise if 100% of Antarctica's ice melted? ›

Together, the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets hold enough water to raise sea level by roughly 65 meters (more than 210 feet) if they melt entirely.

How serious is the Doomsday Glacier? ›

Scientists are warning a melting glacier near Antarctica could lead to catastrophic conditions in the next 20 years. Warm sea water is pushing underneath the Thwaites Glacier, also dubbed the doomsday glacier, which is causing sea levels to rise.

How much is the sea level predicted to rise by 2100? ›

About 2 feet (0.6 meters) of sea level rise along the U.S. coastline is increasingly likely between 2020 and 2100 because of emissions to date. Failing to curb future emissions could cause an additional 1.5 - 5 feet (0.5 - 1.5 meters) of rise for a total of 3.5 - 7 feet (1.1 - 2.1 meters) by the end of this century.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Jonah Leffler

Last Updated:

Views: 6075

Rating: 4.4 / 5 (65 voted)

Reviews: 88% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Jonah Leffler

Birthday: 1997-10-27

Address: 8987 Kieth Ports, Luettgenland, CT 54657-9808

Phone: +2611128251586

Job: Mining Supervisor

Hobby: Worldbuilding, Electronics, Amateur radio, Skiing, Cycling, Jogging, Taxidermy

Introduction: My name is Jonah Leffler, I am a determined, faithful, outstanding, inexpensive, cheerful, determined, smiling person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.