Thwaites is one of the largest glaciers in Antarctica, sometimes referred to as the Doomsday Glacier for its sheer size and potential to raise sea levels should it melt and collapse into the ocean. The glacier extends over roughly 74,000 square miles, making it almost as large as Great Britain, and scientists say it could “shatter like a car windscreen” in the coming decade.
The Thwaites Glacier currently empties 50 billion tonnes of ice into the ocean yearly, though this isn’t enough to be significant and it would likely take many centuries for the glacier to melt away and raise ocean levels by a worrying amount. However, Thwaites is being affected by global warming in a rapid way, with warm ocean water flowing under the ice sheet of Thwaites, a floating section of ice that helps keep the glacier stable.
The eastern shelf of the glacier could end up moving away from it at over triple its current speed, from 600m yearly to 2km, and fractures growing in the ice may cause it to break apart, destabilising the glacier. Whilst the current area at threat could be seen as inconsequential, the idea that more areas of the glacier could break away or melt is a huge concern when it comes to Thwaites’ ice loss.
“I visualise it somewhat similar to that car window where you have a few cracks that are slowly propagating, and then suddenly you go over a bump in your car and the whole thing just starts to shatter in every direction,” Dr Erin Pettit stated.
Come 2022, the UK will have the submarine “Boaty McBoatface” dive below the ice sheet of the glacier, collecting data on any factors that could relate to melting the ice, including temperature of the water, turbulence and the direction of the current. The seafloor below the floating ice is a rugged area though, with fears the autonomous submarine may get damaged or even lost beneath the Antarctic even after a lot of work being done to provide “Boaty” with collision avoidance and a system allowing it to retrace its steps and escape should it get in trouble.