NASA Finds Giant Cavity in Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier

03 February, 2019, 15:31 | Author: Sherry Houston
  • Researchers say there is an alarmingly large hole underneath Thwaites Glacier shown here in Antarctica

"If there is more heat and water under the glacier, melting it faster".

A massive cavity that is two-thirds the size of Manhattan and almost the height of the Chrysler Building is growing at the bottom of one of the world's most risky glaciers - a discovery that NASA scientists called "disturbing".

The melting in Thwaites Glacier, approximately the size of Florida in the U.S., contributes four percent of global sea level rise each year. Scientists expected to find some relatively small gaps between the glacier and bedrock, but were unsettled by the 1,000-foot deep cavity the mission revealed.

The study was published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances.

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And worse, its neighbouring glaciers would raise sea levels an additional eight feet if all the ice was lost. The bedrock under Thwaites and other glaciers in the region slopes downward further inland, allowing that warm water to rot out the glaciers from underneath.

The Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica covers 182,000 square kilometres - an area the size of Great Britain - and is one of the biggest in the world.

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The Thwaites Glacier is one of the hardest places to reach on Earth, and there's no way to monitor Antarctic glaciers from ground level over the long term, said scientists.

This huge opening at the bottom of the Thwaites Glacier - a mass infamously dubbed the "most risky glacier in the world" - is so big it represents an overt chunk of the estimated 252 billion tonnes of ice Antarctica loses every year. This has made the melt rate on this part of the glacier unsettlingly high, the researchers said. Most models of the Thwaites glacier don't take into account rapid cavern forming, so the entire glacier is likely to be melting much faster than our predictions estimate.

"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", concluded Pietro Milillo, the study's leading author.

The Thwaites glacier is slightly smaller than the total size of the United Kingdom, approximately the same size as the state of Washington, and is located in the Amundsen Sea.

These findings show the complexity of ice-ocean interactions.

Once gone, surrounding glaciers will have no obstacle in their path, speeding up their melting and the potential release of enough water to raise sea levels by as much as 2.4m.

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