The doomsday glacier

First, glaciers move forward under the weight of the large ice sheets behind them. A typical speed is 10 inches (25 cm) per day.

Second, glaciers are retreating all over the world and are a dramatic sign of global warming. It’s quite simple. As the earth’s atmosphere warms up, the ice in the glaciers melts faster, so a long glacier shortens in length and this is what is meant by glacier retreat. Such glaciers occur in the Himalayas, Greenland, and New Zealand, for example.

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Thwaites glacier is the small area on the West Antarctic Icesheet. Only a small part of it touches the sea. Click to source article then hit back-arrow to return to this blog article.

Now it turns out that Antarctica has glaciers too – absolutely enormous ones that can be two miles thick. One of these is called Thwaites glacier and it is retreating too. And from time to time the ice-cliffs at the front of the glacier break off huge icebergs, which cause sea level to rise a bit when they melt.

Thwaites is a massive glacier – roughly the size of Britain. It already accounts for 4% of world sea level rise each year – a huge figure for a single glacier – and satellite data show that it is melting increasingly rapidly.

There is enough water locked up in it to raise world sea level by more than half a meter if the glacier completely melted.

It’s sometimes called the Doomsday glacier — because its retreating faster all the time and calving larger and larger icebergs. So its contribution to sea level rise is growing and could eventually get scary.

Note: The ice in Antarctica is so thick that it holds 90% of the world’s fresh water.

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Most of the Antarctic ice rests on bedrock, shown by the jagged line here. The scale on the left is in meters, and it shows that the thickest part of the ice sheet in this picture is just over 2 miles thick. The top of Thwaites glacier is mostly way above sea level, but the outer edge of the glacier lies at sea level and that’s where the big ice cliffs are (see picture below). Click to source.

The front of the Thwaites glacier is almost 100 miles wide (160km) and is collapsing into the sea at up to two miles (3km) a year. This is why Thwaites is such an important part of world sea level rise — it already accounts for 4% of world sea level rise each year and this is growing.

Typical ice cliffs wher Thwaites glacier comes down to the sea

Typical ice cliffs where Thwaites glacier comes down to the sea. Click to source.

Now average sea level has a huge effect on the severity of storm surges, says Prof David Vaughan, the director of science at the British Antarctic Survey.

In London, for instance, an increase in sea level of half a meter (about 1.5 ft) would mean the storm surge that used to come every thousand years will now come every 100 years. If you increase that to one meter (about 3 ft) then the storm surge is likely to come once every 10 years.

Scientists think that warm ocean water flows to the Antarctic coast all the way from Greenland, believe it or not. Then it flows under the ice front, melting the glacier (see the double-figure).

Photo showing how Thwaites doomsday glacier is melting.

How warm water from Greenland flows under Thwaites glacier (because the water is more salty) and eats away the ice, causing more icebergs to calve and enhance sea level rise. Click to source.

As the glacier retreats, yet more ice is exposed because the glacier gets thicker as you go inland. This means larger icebergs.

Also, the weight of the vast quantity of ice in a glacier slowly pushes it forward (but very very slowly). It wants to “smoosh out,” explains Dr Riverman. The higher the ice cliff, she says, the more “smooshing” the glacier wants to do.

So, the more the glacier melts, the more quickly the ice in it is likely to move toward the sea.

“The fear is these processes will just accelerate,” she says. “It is a feedback loop, a vicious cycle.”
Much of the above is adapted from BBC News:
Justin Rowlatt, Antarctica melting: Journey to the ‘doomsday glacier’, BBC News, 28 January 2020.

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Novel will be released in March 2020.

My new novel, FracMan Conflicted, is being printed. Release date is March 2020 by Deep River Books. Here is a short review by Jessica Eubank, Albuquerque:
“Follow Kelly Owens, a young petroleum engineer, on her life’s jour¬ney. Calm, cool, and collected, Kelly strives to approach her work in creative but safe ways. She is thrown for a loop when assigned to work with the FracMan, Jordan, an egotistical adventurer whose life of risk-taking has thrust him to the top of his field, but not without consid¬erable danger. Will Kelly be able to find a win-win working with the risk Jordan presents? Or will everything blow up? Read along as Kelly battles to establish herself as a top engineer in the booming gas and oil industry—all while she faces life’s challenges of love, loss, risk, tragedy, and seeking God.”

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The Gray Nomad clearing the runway on Thwaites glacier. Just kidding…..this was actually 6 inches of snow in Independence, Kansas a few weeks ago.


The Gray Nomad ….. Read and watch out for more frequent storm surges.
Always be ready to give a logical defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope that is in you, but do it courteously and respectfully.
[First Book of Peter, chapter 3]

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Neil Palmer
Neil Palmer
4 years ago

Hi Ian, fascinating story and cause for serious thought. Climate change has been politicised in Australia over the past ten years, but the severity of the recent bushfires has been a wake up call and it has become a serious issue of concern to all, with significant calls for action, not just rhetoric and argument over Tokyo and Paris greenhouse gas reduction targets. Just wondering why the warm water circulates under the glacier? I thought it would float on the colder water?

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