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Doomsday Glacier Shows We’re Closer to Doomsday Than First Thought

If you’re not one who accepts the accuracy of the Doomsday Clock (which was just reset to 100 seconds to midnight/doomsday – the closest it has ever been), would you accept the prediction of the Thwaites Glacier – known among climate scientists as Doomsday Glacier? The what?

“Thwaites’ demise alone could have significant impact globally. It would drain a mass of water that is roughly the size of Great Britain or the state of Florida and currently accounts for approximately 4 percent of global sea-level rise. Some scientists see Thwaites as the most vulnerable and most significant glacier in the world in terms of future global sea-level rise—its collapse would raise global sea levels by nearly one meter, perhaps overwhelming existing populated areas.”

Thwaites Glacier (NASA image)

In a press release by New York University, David Holland, director of New York University’s Environmental Fluid Dynamics Laboratory and NYU Abu Dhabi’s Center for Global Sea Level Change, describes new and unprecedented research at the so-called Thwaites grounding zone where its ice transitions between resting fully on bedrock and floating on the ocean as an ice shelf. This spot is the best place to measure how fast a glacier is retreating and Thwaites’ is nearly impossible to reach because of its remoteness, high winds and frigid temperatures. Located at Pine Island Bay as part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, it has been called the Doomsday Glacier for its potential to raise sea levels due to its fast melting.

“The fact that such warm water was just now recorded by our team along a section of Thwaites grounding zone where we have known the glacier is melting suggests that it may be undergoing an unstoppable retreat that has huge implications for global sea level rise.”

In early January, Holland led researchers to the Thwaites, where they used warm water drilling to bore a hole 600 meters (1968 feet) deep and 35 cm (1.15 feet) wide and drop an ocean-sensing robot named Icefin to measure the waters moving below the glacier’s surface. The most important Icefin measurements were temperature and turbulence, which is caused by warm fresh meltwater from the glacier meeting cold ocean saltwater. At the “grounding line,” the researchers found water temperatures at about 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) — more than 2 degrees warmer than the freezing point at that location. Is that a problem, Dr. Holland?

“That is really, really bad. That’s not a sustainable situation for that glacier.”

By “not a sustainable situation,” Holland means the measurements confirmed what researchers have long suspected about the 100-mile-wide Doomsday Glacier – it is losing as much as 50 billion tons of ice per year. That’s about two miles (3 km) per year. Were the 74,000-square-mile Thwaites Glacier to collapse, break off and float away, it is estimated to have the potential to global sea levels by more than three feet. Would that be Doomsday?

Is it too late?

The BBC points out that the latest findings put the collapse of the Thwaites at a mere decades away, although it could be a century. However, Professor David Vaughan, the director of science at the British Antarctic Survey and part of the research team, says even a lesser rise in sea level will first increase the severity of storm surges. An increase in sea level of 50 cm (1.6 feet) would mean thousand-year storms would come every 100 years and a meter would move them to once a decade. That would force tens of millions of people living on the coasts to move inland – far inland – in a world where storm surges are already impacting coastlines from Florida to India to Japan and beyond.

Now do you believe the Doomsday Glacier?

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Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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