The situation in the cryosphere is turning out to be a lot worse than scientists initially predicted. By that, I mean the ice is melting too damn fast. And that should be a major concern for everyone—especially if you live on or near a coastline. The rapid loss of ice from glaciers and ice sheets in our polar regions directly contributes to sea level rise, which affects so much of our planet and lives.
A new study published in Science Advances Friday shares debut direct observational data from beneath Thwaites, the so-called “doomsday” glacier in western Antarctica. The findings will directly influence climate models that help measure future global sea level rise projections. The paper is a result of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, a global partnership between scientists in the U.K. and U.S. I’m sorry to say, folks: The findings aren’t exactly encouraging.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re zooming into the Antarctic. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. It’s hard to fathom the amount of water that’s locked within Thwaites. It’s the widest glacier in the world with the ability to contribute more than two feet to global sea levels if it fully collapses. For reference, that’s enough to put parts of Miami Beach underwater.
When Robert Larter headed to Antarctica in 2019, it was his sixth time visiting the region. As a marine geophysicist and the deputy science leader of paleo environments with the British Antarctic Survey, Larter was beyond ecstatic to study Thwaites, a glacier few have had the distinguished pleasure of witnessing in person. By the time the team’s ship approached Thwaites in February 2019, the sea ice conditions were favorable enough for the researchers to get up close and personal. At the time, no team had yet visited the western area on the Amundsen Sea right up by the glacier. They were the first.
“The Thwaites Glacier has almost got a mythical aura about it,” said Larter, an author on the study. “Everybody had been talking about, We need to find things out about Thwaites Glacier, for years… We got there in the half light, in the early hours of the morning, so it was kind of an eerie sight, seeing these towering ice cliffs.”
The team of researchers engaged in a variety of scientific endeavors, including tagging elephant and Weddell seals to help log oceanic measurements. But Larter was there with a specific question in mind: What does the ocean beneath Thwaites look like? The team of scientists began to answer this question in a study it published Friday in Science Advances, where the researchers outline previously unknown conditions that exist beneath the so-called “doomsday” glacier, including a notable warmer water stream flowing west from Pine Island Bay beneath Thwaites.
“We can’t give you a positive conclusion, or we can’t say right now what this means in terms of what’s going to happen in a particular number of years, but these results are not good news,” Larter said.
Thwaites garnered the title—“the doomsday glacier”—due to its increasingly unstable oceanic dynamics and contributions to sea level rise. This single glacier has seen its ice loss double over the last 30 years, which is a tremendous change in a small amount of time (geologically speaking). Climate models determine how much seas will rise and by when based on data from glaciers—especially from Thwaites.
“When it comes to future sea-level rise, Thwaites Glacier is the most important glacier in the world,” said Karen Alley, an assistant professor of environment and geography at the University of Manitoba’s Center for Earth Observation Science, who was not involved in the paper. “Understanding ocean circulation around and beneath Thwaites Glacier is vital to predicting its future contributions to global sea level.”
The findings from this exhibition will allow scientists to update climate models to better predict future climate disasters, as well as better prepare for impacts to coastal communities. Sea level rise is projected to displace up to 630 million people globally by the end of the century. That’s nearly double the population of the U.S. There’s still plenty of unknowns that’ll remain even after this data is added to models because the researchers mapped only a small portion of the region, but uncertainty comes with the territory when you’re trying to predict the future. Eliminating any bit of that uncertainty is extremely beneficial to science and how we plan for climate impacts.
Alex Robel, an assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Georgia Tech who specializes in ice sheet modeling (and was not involved in this study), is already thinking about how the findings could improve models he works with: “The study starts to give us a sense for how Thwaites is connected to the broader context of ocean currents in this region in a way that hasn’t previously been possible.” The team on the paper analyzed the region near the Amundsen Sea by collecting sonar data and sending an unmanned submarine underneath the ice sheet to measure the water temperature, speed, and direction.
The varying levels of agreement and disagreement between models and the observational data is exciting, said Tasha Snow, a postdoctoral researcher of geography at the Colorado School of Mines, who was on that expedition with Larter in 2019 but did not contribute to this specific paper. “The findings show where models have a good handle on processes and where we have adjustments we need to make. It leads to a synergistic dialogue between modelers and observationalists, which was one of the main goals for the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration in the first place.”
Mapping all of this out is critical to understanding the pattern of how an ice sheet may thin and melt in its lifetime. In a polar environment, even a few degrees difference in temperature is enough to erode frozen ice. The paper shows that the pinning points, which provide stability to the glacier, are more vulnerable than previously thought given where water is actually moving beneath Thwaites.
“In that space of deep uncertainty, we have to make really big planning decisions. We have to figure out how communities are going to continue to exist.”
Scientists who spend their time thinking about and preparing for a terrifying future where our coasts disappear—which will happen regardless of whether leaders act on climate—rely on climate models to plan solutions. That’s especially true for the team at Florida International University’s Sea Level Solutions Center.
The study will help researchers such as Jayantha Obeysekera, director and research professor at the center, further cement sea level rise projections so that they can guide city planners and decision-makers on what steps to take to protect the public and prevent as much damage as possible from sea level rise. Higher seas worsen storm surge when hurricanes hit and coastal erosion, especially on island nations that barely contributed any greenhouse gas emissions.
“There are many island nations in the developing world that are susceptible to sea level rise, more so than some of the other western, richer nations,” Obeysekera said. “They don’t have the capacity to adapt to this type of sea level rise.”
The swelling of our seas can cascade into a number of societal issues. While some families may be forced to abandon their homes, others farther from the coast may see their neighborhoods become gentrified. As people navigate through their communities to avoid flooding, something as trivial as traffic can become worse, which is already happening in parts of Florida, said Nadia Seeteram, a Ph.D. candidate at Florida International University who is working closely with Obeysekera on her dissertation. Research like this paper can help the team better understand what’s coming so that they can help develop solutions with the communities most vulnerable and affected.
“We have knowledge about how sea levels can rise under certain scenarios, but we don’t know which one will really play out yet,” Seeteram said. “When I see a study like this, what I think about is it’s like another piece to the puzzle in helping us figure out that deep uncertainty because in that space of deep uncertainty, we have to make really big planning decisions. We have to figure out how communities are going to continue to exist.”
These latest findings offer only a snapshot of what’s hiding beneath the world’s glaciers. We’ll need a lot more of these glimpses to put together a full image of what the world leaders are creating with their climate inaction. Let’s hope the rest aren’t as bleak.