Far, far away from the presumably toasty place you’re reading this, on the Walgreen Coast of Antarctica, there’s a massive chunk of ice known as the Thwaites Glacier. It’s the widest glacier in the world, and scientists are worried that a large volume of its ice could end up in the oceans very soon. This has earned Thwaites a nickname: Doomsday Glacier. Researchers from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) warned in a press briefing this past week that near-term changes in the Doomsday Glacier could raise sea levels by a whopping two feet.
The Thwaites Glacier has been receding for some time, but we’ve been spared from the worst of the effects by a handy ice shelf that blocks most of the ice from escaping into the surrounding water. Currently, the Thwaites Glacier empties 50 billion tons of ice into the ocean every year. That means it alone is responsible for four percent of the annual sea level increase.
According to the AGU, Thwaites is becoming unstable. The glacier is more than 80 miles (128 kilometers) across and reaches depths of up to 3,900 feet (1,188 meters). It connects to an underwater “seamount,” which is weakening as ocean waters warm. The scientists worry that fractures could eventually cause the glacier to crumble. If the eastern ice shelf that limits runoff collapses, the Thwaites Glacier could begin losing mass at an alarming rate.
We could be just a few years away from this scenario, and the effects could be dire. A two-foot increase might not sound like a lot, but most coastlines are gentle slopes. A permanent increase in sea levels like this could flood numerous coastal cities, potentially displacing millions of people in the US. Asian nations are also expected to be heavily impacted.
The demise of Thwaites Glacier may be inevitable, though. Recent studies have suggested that there is already enough carbon in the atmosphere to push us over the edge into severe climate change with increases in planetary temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius. That would cause coastal flooding that directly impacts more than 9 million Americans. If we were to reach 3 degrees Celsius, that would increase to 26 million.
The AGU scientists were careful not to say Thwaites Glacier is the sole point of concern. Its collapse would be a major setback for efforts to limit the impact of climate change, but it’s just one of many points of failure in Antarctica’s deteriorating ice sheet. It’s a bad situation, and we might not have the tools to turn things around.