Published: Tue, February 05, 2019
Science | By Michele Flores

Huge cavity in Antarctic glacier signals rapid decay

Huge cavity in Antarctic glacier signals rapid decay

A massive cavity two-thirds the size of Manhattan has been discovered growing in an Antarctic glacier, signaling rapid ice decay that has shocked scientists.

None of these are doing well, but one of them-the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica-is rapidly crumbling. Thwaites has enough ice that if it all melted, global sea levels would rise a little more than two feet.

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. The bedrock under Thwaites and other glaciers in the region slopes downward further inland, allowing that warm water to rot out the glaciers from underneath.

Bute size and explosive growth rate of the newfound hole surprised them.

"We have for years suspected that Thwaites is not firmly connected to the substrate", says Co-author Eric Rignot. "Thanks to a new generation of satellites, we can finally see the detail", he said.

The cavity was found using ice-penetrating radar in NASA's Operation IceBridge, an airborne campaign that began in 2010.

These very high-resolution data can be processed by a technique called radar interferometry to reveal how the ground surface below has moved between images. "If there is more heat and water under the glacier, melting it faster". NASA has found disturbing things about the state of the glacier.

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Antarctica has been constantly losing ice in the last decades as global warming became more pronounced.

The Thwaites glacier, about the size of the US state of Florida, and now account for about four percent of the global sea-level rise is responsible.

This would inundate coastal cities like NY, which could probably cope with the changes if they were gradual but would be seriously and potentially mortally damaged if sea levels rose too quickly for engineers to mount a response.

Understanding the unstable glacier is important for future predictions about sea level rise. About the size of Florida, the Thwaites Glacier is responsible for about 4.0 percent of global sea level rise.

"On the eastern side of the glacier, the grounding-line retreat proceeds through small channels, maybe a kilometre wide, like fingers reaching beneath the glacier to melt it from below", Milillo said.

Many Antarctic glaciers extend for miles beyond their grounding lines, floating out over the open ocean. In essence, this means that the glacier at this spot is exposed to the ebb and flow of the tide, which causes the ice at the grounding line to retreat and advance across a region that's about 2 to 3 miles (3 to 5 km) long.

Despite this high rate of retreat, melt rates are still higher on the western side, where the void is located.

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