Published: Fri, February 01, 2019
Science | By Michele Flores

NASA makes ‘disturbing,’ Manhattan-sized discovery in the Antarctic

NASA makes ‘disturbing,’ Manhattan-sized discovery in the Antarctic

A massive cavity that is two-thirds the size of Manhattan and almost the height of the Chrysler Building is growing at the bottom of one of the world's most risky glaciers - a discovery that NASA scientists called "disturbing".

"The size of a cavity under a glacier plays an important role in melting", lead author Pietro Milillo said in a statement.

While researchers are still learning new things about the complex ways ice melts at the Thwaite Glacier, at its most basic, the giant cavity represents a simple (if unfortunate) scientific actuality. It is growing at an "explosive" rate that surprised researchers conducting a study the agency led on the glacier. That cavern is likely filled with air much warmer than the surrounding ice, triggering faster melting of the glacier than would happen otherwise.

Researcher Eric Rignot of the University of California, Irvine said, 'We have suspected for years that Thwaites was not tightly attached to the bedrock beneath it.

Scientists spotted the concealed void thanks to a new generation of satellites, Rignot noted.

To put it into a sobering context, the entire glacier "holds enough ice to raise the world ocean a little over two feet (65 centimeters)". If those glaciers melted, too, sea levels could increase a whopping 8 feet (2.4 meters), the research team said.

Thwaites Glacier is now responsible for approximately 4 per cent of global sea level rise.

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While Thwaites is certainly a hard place to reach, a five-year expedition by the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration to study the glacier will begin this summer.

"We are discovering different mechanisms of retreat, ' Mr Milillo said".

The glacier is retreating in the face of the warming ocean and is thought to be unstable because its interior lies more than two kilometres below sea level while, at the coast, the bottom of the glacier is quite shallow. In this region, as the tide rises and falls, the grounding line retreats and advances across a zone of about three to five kilometers.

The glacier has been coming unstuck from a ridge in the bedrock at a steady rate of about 0.6 to 0.8 kilometers a year since 1992.

Despite this stable rate of grounding-line retreat, the melting rate on this side of the glacier is extremely high.

These findings show the complexity of ice-ocean interactions.

Within each main region of Antarctica (East, West and the Antarctic Peninsula), ice loss has been concentrated in certain sectors over the last 40 years, the new study finds.

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