Research

Massive Hole Two-Thirds the Size of Manhattan Discovered in Antarctic Glacier

Massive Hole Two-Thirds the Size of Manhattan Discovered in Antarctic Glacier

A massive cavity two-thirds the size of Manhattan was discovered growing at the bottom of Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, which does not bode well for the survival of the disintegrating glacier. Their findings show that Thwaites Glacier is suffering from extensive ice thinning, receding, and calving, as well as a 300-meter (1,000-foot) hole inside its west wing that's growing at an "explosive" rate. "As more heat and water get under the glacier, it melts faster", said Pietro Milillo of JPL.

There's no way to monitor Antarctic glaciers from ground level over the long term. They used NASA's ice-penetrating radar to get their data. The glacier itself is about as big as the state of Florida, and, if melted completely, could raise sea levels by some 2 feet globally, the scientists say. Thwaites holds back a large portion of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and a handful of nearby glaciers; if Thwaites disappears, we could see an additional 8 feet of sea level rise from these sources, on top of the 2 feet from Thwaites itself.

While Thwaites is certainly a hard place to reach, a five-year expedition by the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration to study the glacier will begin this summer. The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration is a joint project between the U.S. National Science Foundation and the British National Environmental Research Council with the aim of getting a better understanding of the glacier and how it will respond to climate change in the future.

In this region, as the tide rises and falls, the grounding line retreats and advances across a zone of about 3 to 5 km. The glacier has retreated at a steady rate of about 0.4 to 0.5 miles (0.6 to 0.8 km) annually since 1992, the researchers found.

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"Such data is essential for field parties to focus on areas where the action is, because the grounding line is retreating rapidly with complex spatial patterns", Milillo said.

Just this week, an icebreaker ship left Chile to begin a scientific expedition to Thwaites Glacier with the help of a number of other ships, researchers, planes, and tagged wild seals.

The newly discovered cavity sits on the western side of the glacier, where the melt rate was found to be fastest. Hopefully, the upcoming global collaboration will help researchers piece together the different systems at work under and around the glacier, the researchers said. Co-authors were from the University of California, Irvine; the German Aerospace Center in Munich, Germany; and the University Grenoble Alpes in Grenoble, France.