the “end of the world glacier” is about to collapse!

Ana Flavia Martins It’s raining in Brazil 6 min
Collapse of Thwaites Glacier
How will glaciers react to climate change scenarios?

The so-called “apocalypse glacier”, “doomsday glacier” or “apocalypse glacier” Located in West Antarctica. It is considered one of the largest glaciers in the world and is approximately 120 km wide and 600 km long. Its original name was Thwaites Glacier, and these nicknames refer at high risk of collapse and the threat to global sea levels.

According to NASA, it is a fragment of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet with enough ice to raise sea level by 4.8 meters. And as the climate crisis continues, this region is under scrutiny for its rapid melting and extensive coastal damage capacity.

The Thwaites Glacier Presenting a major challenge to scientists trying to make global predictions of sea level rise. This huge ice mass is now in a phase of rapid retreat (a “collapse” if we put ourselves on a geological time scale), raising concerns about when or how fast the ice will release it into the ocean.

According to scientists, with its complete dissolution, sea ​​level will likely rise from 0.91 to 3.05 meters, threatens nearly 40% of the human population living in coastal areas.

3D image of the sea floor in front of Thwaites Glacier
The images collected by the Rán vehicle show geological features that are new to science. Source: Alastair Graham, University of South Florida.

This glacier has worried scientists for decades. In 1973, researchers question whether the risk of collapse is high. About ten years later, it was discovered that because the glacier was anchored to the ocean floor, warm ocean currents could melt it from below and destroy it. From there, scientists began to consider the region around Thwaites as “the weak point of West Antarctica”.

Ocean currents can melt the glacier from below, to the point that it is considered the weak point of the West Antarctic ice sheet.

In 2001, satellite data shows that the ground line has decreased about 1 km/year. In 2020, evidence was discovered that warm water is melting the glacier from below. In 2021, a study showed that the ice shelf, which helps stabilize the glacier, may be dissolved within five years.

In an article published in September in Nature Geoscience, experts from the United States, the United Kingdom and Sweden analyzed the sea floor near the glacier and its geological formations, with the aim of mapping, for the first time and at high resolution, its historical retreat.

The expedition took place in 2019 and involved a state-of-the-art robotic vehicle loaded with imaging sensors, called Rán, which can withstand extreme pressure and temperature conditions. This team passed almost 20 hours to collect images and data on the sea floor of Thwaites Glacier. The robot mapped an area equivalent to the city of Houston (USA) at a depth of 700 meters.

The team documented more than 160 ridges that were created, like a “geological footprint”, as the edge of the glacier receded, rising and falling with the tides, thus helping to understand what may happen in the future.

What are the main conclusions of this study?

The results show that at one point in the last 200 years, for a period of less than six months, the glacier front lost contact with a ridge on the sea floor and retreated – or collapsed – at a rate of more than 2.1 km/h per year. That’s double the rate scientists observed in the last decade.

In addition, they show that the massive structure of Antarctica is capable of melting at a faster than expected rate in a short period of time, which raises concerns about sea level rise and the risk to coastal cities. According to scientists, this research represents a major change in perspective.

In the past, ice sheet responses to climate change were thought to take longer to occur. now, Recent geological information confirms that these reactions are occurring faster than expected.

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