Antarctica: Expert spots 'underwater structure' on Google Maps
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British and American researchers argue that a floating section at the front of Thwaites Glacier may “shatter like a car windscreen”, after having remained relatively stable until now. The experts are now scrambling to investigate the Antarctic glacier in a study programme due to its alarming rate of melt. Thwaites is already dumping around 50 billion tonnes of ice into the ocean every year.
Right now, this only has a limited impact on global sea levels, but there is enough ice held upstream in the glacier’s drainage basin to cause ocean heights to rise by 65cm if all of it melts.
While this “doomsday” scenario is unlikely to happen for several centuries, scientists claim Thwaites is already rapidly responding to global warming.
Glaciologist Professor Ted Scambos, the US lead coordinator for the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), told BBC News: “There is going to be dramatic change in the front of the glacier, probably in less than a decade. Both published and unpublished studies point in that direction.
“This will accelerate the pace (of Thwaites) and widen, effectively, the dangerous part of the glacier.”
Thwaites is enormous in its size, roughly covering the same area as Great Britain or Florida.
And in the past 30 years, its outflow speed has doubled.
The ITGC say this is a result of warmer ocean waters getting underneath the glacier, and then melting Thwaites’s floating front, otherwise known as its ice shelf.
This causes the ice to thin and weaken, forcing it to run faster and is pushing back the zone where the main glacier body becomes buoyant.
At present, the leading edge of the eastern ice shelf is held in place by an offshore underwater ridge.
This keeps its flow speed to a third of that seen in the ice shelf’s western section, which does not have this feature.
But worryingly, the scientists argue the eastern shelf will probably become uncoupled from the ridge in the next few years, forcing it to destabilise.
And even if the pinning keeps on happening, the continued development of fractures in the thinning shelf ice will almost certainly break up the area anyway.
Dr Erin Pettit from Oregon State University said: “I visualise it somewhat similar to that car window where you have a few cracks that are slowly propagating, and then suddenly you go over a bump in your car and the whole thing just starts to shatter in every direction.”
While the area that is affected is only a small part of the glacier, the change to the glacier and what this means for further ice loss is significant.
Right now, the eastern shelf, which is around 40km wide, moves forward at around 600m per year.
The upcoming change will likely see the following ice soar in speed to about two km per year.
That is the same as the current velocity recorded in the 80km-wide western sector of the glacier.
The five-year ITGC project, jointly funded by the US National Science Foundation and the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council, has been sending teams of scientists to investigate the glacier in a variety of ways.
One of their upcoming projects involves sending the submarine dubbed “Boaty McBoatface” dive under Thwaites’ floating ice to collect data on water temperature, current direction and turbulence – which have an impact on ice melt.
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The vehicle will be sent on missions where it will have to navigate its own path through the cavity beneath the shelf.
It has been described as a high-risk project as the seafloor terrain is extremely rugged.
Dr Alex Phillips from the UK’s National Oceanography Centre said: “It’s scary. We might not get Boaty back.
“We’ve put a lot of effort this past year into developing collision avoidance for the vehicle, to make sure it doesn’t crash into the seabed.
“We also have contingencies whereby if it does get into trouble, it can retrace its steps and retreat to safety.”
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