What will really happen when the so-called "apocalypse glacier" disintegrates?

What will really happen when the so-called “apocalypse glacier” disintegrates?

As many climate change activists have been pointing out lately, the “doomsday” implied in the term “Doomsday Glacier” – the nickname given to the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica – may soon be upon us. But what will this day really look like?

As reported in a chilling new newspaper article nature geoscience by a team led by geo-oceanographer Alastair GC Graham, Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier may be closer to a major disintegration event than previously thought.

Here’s what’s new in our understanding of this situation: This new study analyzed ridges on the sea floor. These rib-like formations reveal strong evidence for the location of the glacier for centuries as the tide pushed him every day. This is different from previously collected data on the glacier, which was taken from satellite maps of the ice as it heads ever further towards total (or near total) collapse into the ocean,


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Using this new way of measuring glacier “footprints” if you will, we now know that a sudden melting event has occurred over the course of six months at some point in the past 200 years. In that brief period, the section of glacier that caused these formations on the ocean floor retreated twice as fast as satellite photos had been able to detect. This means that in addition to the constant loss of mass that scientists already knew about, there are also rarer and more frightening very rapid decay pulses.

“Thwaites is really holding on today by the nails, and we should expect to see big changes on small timescales in the future,” said marine geophysicist Robert Larter, one of the co-authors of the study. ‘study. said in a press statement.

The rupture of this glacier therefore seems imminent, and the consequences of this rupture are no joke. According to a 2020 estimate from the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, 4% of sea level rise caused by climate change so far has come from Thwaites alone, and a sudden total collapse would raise sea levels by 25 inches longer.

“Scientists want to know how quickly this could happen,” the Collaboration’s communications manager, Athena Dinar, wrote in a statement.

How fast is the Thwaites Glacier melting?

The question of the rate at which Thwaites is deteriorating is a pressing one. A sudden glacial break will see a staggering amount of new water suddenly poured into the ocean, and it’s hard not to imagine the water suddenly rising, like when you dip a large ice cube into a full glass.

And perhaps an overnight catastrophic flood could occur, but the available evidence from this new study even points to the “doomsday” scenario extending for at least six months. It’s frightening, and similar changes in the movement of ocean water have historical precedents, but fortunately, compared to the scenario all at once, six months is enough for people who live in coastal neighborhoods low altitude evacuate.

See for yourself the potential sea level rise

Louisiana’s terrifying new coastline
Credit: Screenshot / NOAA

You can see for yourself what the collapse of the Thwaites Glacier would look like with Sea Level Rise Viewer, a web application created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This redraws any US coastline to account for any sea level rise (in 12 inch increments).

It would devastate, for example, southern Louisiana and Mississippi. In New York, however, Manhattan would just be splashed — despite the danger of flooding in low-lying areas like Hudson Yards. The city where I live, Los Angeles, would be mostly spared, with the exception of the area around Venice Beach.

An alarming name can hide a bigger problem

All of this is in no way intended to alleviate the horrors of sea level rise, but it should be noted that scientists have expressed doubts about ascribing apocalyptic significance to Thwaites in particular, notably in an article by Jackson Ryan of CNET. “On the one hand, it’s a wake-up call, aka take these things seriously“, Eric Rignot, Earth scientist at NASA, told Ryan. “On the other hand, it sums up the situation as if there is only one bad glacier there. ”

As Ryan points out in this article, the moniker “Doomsday Glacier” “might actually do more harm than good” because there are other, larger ice formations to worry about. And as Ryan notes, “one of the main reasons scientists feel uncomfortable with this phrase is that it suggests we are already doomed.”


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“Doom” is a tricky rhetorical device to use effectively in this context because, as the sixth IPCC report pointed out, better climate policies are likely to lead to climate benefits decades after they come into effect – perhaps be up to 30 years on the road, according to Chapter 4 of the report. So were not doomed, but at the same time, nothing we do now can benefit today’s young adults until they are on the brink of old age.

This means that if the so-called “apocalypse glacier” is hanging by a thread, it may be too late to stop it from melting.

So, to recap: Thwaites is likely to reach the tipping point that scientists fear and disintegrate completely. When and if it does, the results may well be cataclysmic, but they won’t be apocalyptic.

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