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A glacier on the edge

PLOS Climate Executive Editor Jamie Males on one of the biggest stories reported at this year’s AGU Fall Meeting

With the world’s attention focused on the emerging threat of the Omicron coronavirus variant, in recent days relatively few headlines have been devoted to another item of news that is of potentially momentous importance for the future of the global environment and humanity. At the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, which I attended online last week on behalf of PLOS Climate, an interdisciplinary team of scientists working on the UK/US-funded International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC) reported that the Thwaites Glacier, an enormous glacier in the region of Antarctica known as Marie Byrd Land, is now dangerously close to irreversible collapse.

Long known to be undergoing rapid warming-induced retreat, Thwaites has been dubbed the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ because of its potential to drive substantial sea level rise as it melts. The glacier is roughly the size of Great Britain, and already its melting contributes some 4% of ongoing global sea level rise through the 50 billion tonnes of ice it ejects into the ocean annually.

At present, a floating ice shelf braces the glacier, and it is this key line of defence that the ITGC scientists predict will buckle in the next few years. Fissures and cracks are spreading so fast through the ice shelf that researchers are able to monitor their propagation in real time. These fractures are rendering the shelf vulnerable to shattering entirely; failure of the ice shelf would in turn allow much more rapid ice flow and disintegration of the glacier itself. Were the entire glacier to eventually melt, it would release enough water to raise sea levels by 65 cm. Whilst this process would happen over centuries, it would be irreversible, and scientists therefore see the current precarious position of the Thwaites Ice Shelf as a key tipping point. There are concerns that Thwaites could also represent an ‘Achilles heel’ for the whole West Antarctic Ice Sheet, with the possibility that the collapse of the Thwaites Ice Shelf and destabilisation of the Thwaites Glacier could lead to significantly accelerated melting of the wider ice sheet.

The five-year ITGC project will continue to monitor and analyse the situation using a wide range of instruments and technologies, including remote sensing by aircraft and satellite, and sensors deployed on the ice and at sea. The UK Natural Environment Research Council’s notoriously-named submersible Boaty McBoatface, currently arriving in Antarctica on the maiden voyage of the RRS Sir David Attenborough, will be conducting exploration of the water underneath the Thwaites Glacier in the coming weeks. The data gathered by the project will be crucial in understanding how the Antarctic environment and its connections with the oceans and global climate may change in the decades ahead— and what that will mean for all of us.

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