World's Widest Glacier Facing Catastrophic Collapse Earlier Than Expected

Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is Melting

An ice shelf in Antarctica -- currently preventing the Thwaites Glacier (aka the "Doomsday Glacier") from falling into the ocean -- could collapse within 3-5 years, according to new research presented by glaciologist, Erin Pettit, to the American Geophysical Union (AGU). If the shelf does collapse, it's projected to torrents of ice and increase global sea level rise by up to 25%.

PBS: Melting of the Thwaites Glacier could rewrite the global coastline, December 15, 2021.

AGU: The Threat from Thwaites - The retreat of Antarctica’s riskiest glacier (press conference), December 13, 2021.

Why This Matters

Major events in the Antarctic and Arctic affect the whole world. According to CNN, rapid sea level rise, like that resulting from the collapse of the shelf, could devastate coastlines globally and low-lying islands in the South Pacific. Other potential consequences include damage to sewage systems and water supply contamination. And, melting permafrost due to rising and record temperatures can release greenhouse gases, adding to the earth's warming and creating a vicious feedback loop.

All this confirms past assessments have been too conservative in their estimations and that the Arctic is warming faster than previously thought.

Rick Spinrad, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) acknowledged the high stakes to reporters on Tuesday, stating: "The Arctic is Earth's air conditioning. Billions of people rely on its moderating influence on climate. We have a narrow window of time to avoid very costly, deadly and irreversible future climate impacts."

NOAA: Arctic Report Card 2021, December 14, 2021.

WW0 COP26 Talks: Surangel Whipps, President of the Republic of Palau, November 3, 2021.

Uncharted Territory

While the new findings indicate serious consequences, scientists emphasize that the outcomes of climactic events are unpredictable due to their novelty. Ted Scambos, senior research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science (CIRES) and contributor to the study presented, told reporters, "We are watching the world do things we have never seen before." Adding, "There's going to be a dramatic change to the front of the glacier within less than a decade."

Anna Crawford, a researcher at St. Andrews Glaciology (STAG), echoed a similar sentiment: "we don't know if or when ice cliff failure is going to initiate. But we're certain the Antarctic is going to change."

BBC: Antarctic glacier heading for dramatic change as Arctic reaches new heat record, December 14, 2021.

MSNBC: 'Doomsday Glacier' - Experts Raise Alarms About Cracking Antarctic Ice Shelf, December 30, 2021.