What’s Going On Here?

Scientists have warned that the eastern ice shelf of Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier could shatter within the next decade, accelerating melting and sea level rise.

What Does This Mean?

West Antarctica’s Thwaites glacier is about the size of Great Britain and sheds circa 50 billion tonnes of ice each year. 

Earlier this week, The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), announced that the glacier is retreating rapidly. A warming ocean is slowly erasing its ice from below, leading to faster flow, more fracturing, and threat of collapse. 

Watch this great 2 minute video explainer from the ITGC:

The eastern shelf was previously deemed ‘more stable’ than others, with the floating part of the ice shelf held in place by an underwater mountain. However, massive fractures have formed and are growing. The floating extension of the Thwaites Glacier will likely only survive a few more years.

Why Should We Care?

The glacier currently contributes four percent of annual global sea level rise. If it does collapse, global sea levels would rise by several feet. This would put millions of people living in coastal cities in danger zones for extreme flooding. 

The failure of the shelf would not immediately accelerate global sea level rise. The shelf already floats on the ocean surface, taking up the same amount of space whether it is solid or liquid.  But when the shelf fails, the eastern third of Thwaites Glacier will triple in speed, flowing formerly landlocked ice into the sea. 

The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration is aiming to reduce the uncertainty of sea-level rise from the mighty glacier and enable mitigation and adaptation to future sea-level rise. The yellow submarine known as “Boaty McBoatface” is due to dive under the glacier in 2022 to gather data on factors that influence melting.

Be Curious!

Header image: An ice cliff above the ocean adjacent to Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. Credits: NASA Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons