Some like to call it the Doomsday Glacier. The research results are probably open to a variety of interpretations, in terms of predictions. But we’re told that whatever is being observed at present is by no means exceptional, making attempts at attribution of its ever-changing condition to human activity even more problematic. Volcanic activity is an obvious confounding factor here.
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The Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica — about the size of Florida — has been an elephant in the room for scientists trying to make global sea level rise predictions, says Science Daily.
This massive ice stream is already in a phase of fast retreat (a “collapse” when viewed on geological timescales) leading to widespread concern about exactly how much, or how fast, it may give up its ice to the ocean.
The potential impact of Thwaites’ retreat is spine-chilling: a total loss of the glacier and surrounding icy basins could raise sea level from three to 10 feet.
A new study in Nature Geoscience led by marine geophysicist Alastair Graham at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science adds cause for concern. For the first time, scientists mapped in high-resolution a critical area of the seafloor in front of the glacier that gives them a window into how fast Thwaites retreated and moved in the past.
The stunning imagery shows geologic features that are new to science, and also provides a kind of crystal ball to see into Thwaites’ future. In people and ice sheets alike, past behavior is key to understanding future behavior.
The team documented more than 160 parallel ridges that were created, like a footprint, as the glacier’s leading edge retreated and bobbed up and down with the daily tides.
“It’s as if you are looking at a tide gauge on the seafloor,” Graham said. “It really blows my mind how beautiful the data are.”
Beauty aside, what’s alarming is that the rate of Thwaites’ retreat that scientists have documented more recently are small compared to the fastest rates of change in its past, said Graham.
To understand Thwaites’ past retreat, the team analyzed the rib-like formations submerged 700 meters (just under half a mile) beneath the polar ocean and factored in the tidal cycle for the region, as predicted by computer models, to show that one rib must have been formed every single day.
At some point in the last 200 years, over a duration of less than six months, the front of the glacier lost contact with a seabed ridge and retreated at a rate of more than 2.1 kilometers per year (1.3 miles per year) — twice the rate documented using satellites between 2011 and 2019.
“Our results suggest that pulses of very rapid retreat have occurred at Thwaites Glacier in the last two centuries, and possibly as recently as the mid-20th Century,” Graham said.
“Thwaites is really holding on today by its fingernails, and we should expect to see big changes over small timescales in the future-even from one year to the next-once the glacier retreats beyond a shallow ridge in its bed,” said marine geophysicist and study co-author Robert Larter from the British Antarctic Survey.
Full article here.
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