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Record Warm Water Measured Beneath Antarctica’s ‘Doomsday’ Glacier

Climate
Thwaites Glacier currently contributes four percent of yearly sea level rise. NASA / James Yungel

Scientists have discovered record warm water beneath Antarctica's "doomsday glacier" for the first time, leading to concerns for the glacier whose collapse could contribute nearly a meter (approximately 3 feet) to global sea level rise.


The findings are part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration — a UK and U.S.-led research expedition to better understand how quickly the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica might collapse. On Jan. 8 and 9, researchers drilled a bore hole through the ice, then measured the waters beneath for the first time on Jan. 10 and 11, according to New York University (NYU). They recorded temperatures more than two degrees Celsius above freezing.

"Warm waters in this part of the world, as remote as they may seem, should serve as a warning to all of us about the potential dire changes to the planet brought about by climate change," researcher David Holland, who directs NYU's Environmental Fluid Dynamics Laboratory and NYU Abu Dhabi's Center for Global Sea Level Change, said in the university press release. "If these waters are causing glacier melt in Antarctica, resulting changes in sea level would be felt in more inhabited parts of the world."

The Thwaites Glacier has been called the "doomsday" glacier and the "most important" glacier in the world, BBC News explained. The glacier, roughly the size of Britain or Florida, already contributes four percent a year to global sea level rise. Not only that, it acts as a stop on the rest of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which could raise sea levels by more than three meters (approximately 10 feet).

"It certainly has a big impact on our U.S. coast and in many areas," Twila Moon of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, who is not involved with the Thwaites project, told The New York Times of the glacier.

While satellite data shows that the glacier is rapidly retreating, there has not been an on-the-ground investigation of the glacier until now, BBC News reported. Partly, this is because of how difficult it is to reach. West Antarctica is the stormiest place on Earth, and the glacier is more than 1,000 miles from the closest research station.

Researchers specifically took measurements from the glacier's grounding zone. That's the place where the glacier's ice moves off of bedrock and into the sea, NYU explained. Thwaites is especially precarious because the bed it rests on slopes downward, according to BBC News. As warm water melts the ice between the glacier's surface and the bedrock, the glacier retreats and the ice on top is more likely to break off.

"The fear is these processes will just accelerate," University of Oregon glaciologist Dr. Kiya Riverman told BBC News. "It is a feedback loop, a vicious cycle."

To better understand the grounding zone, the scientists drilled a 600 meter (approximately 1,968.5 feet) hole through the ice and used a device to measure the ocean's temperature and turbulence — a sign of the glacier's fresh water mixing with the salt water of the ocean. This is the first time scientists have measured the ocean beneath Thwaites through a bore hole, and their results so far show they were right to be worried.

"The fact that such warm water was just now recorded by our team along a section of Thwaites grounding zone where we have known the glacier is melting suggests that it may be undergoing an unstoppable retreat that has huge implications for global sea level rise," Holland told NYU.

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