Thwaites glacier: What is the ‘Doomsday’ glacier and what could collapse mean?

Seafloor images shed new light on Thwaites glacier’s retreat (Anna Wahlin/University of Gothenburg)
Seafloor images shed new light on Thwaites glacier’s retreat (Anna Wahlin/University of Gothenburg)

In Antarctica, there is a glacier larger than Florida known as the Thwaites glacier, named after geologist Fredrik T Thwaites. However, it also has a more ominous name: the Doomsday glacier.

This nickname was attributed to the glacier because of its high risk of raising sea levels to a critical level.

Researchers and scientists closely monitor the Doomsday glacier and how much it’s retreating.

As one of the widest glaciers on Earth, Thwaites is larger than the state of Florida, with warm currents flowing underneath eating away at its underside.

Some refer to it as the “weak underbelly” of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, due to its vulnerability to retreating, a process that has been accelerating in the past few years.

Here’s a look at what could happen to the Doomsday glacier and what repercussions this could have on the rest of the world.

What could the Thwaites glacier collapse mean?

The Thwaites Ice Shelf, a floating platform of ice that braces and restrains the eastern portion of the Thwaites glacier, is expected to collapse within the next nine years. It was given a life expectancy of 10 years in 2021.

If it should collapse, the glacier would release enough water to result in an extreme sea level rise of several feet, which is of great concern to scientists.

On September 5, a study was published by Nature Geoscience outlining how Thwaites is being slowly eroded and melted over time, in the hope of predicting what the glacier might do in the future.

Scientists are also working to find effective ways to prevent the glacier’s retreat but progress has so far been slow.

While uncovering the history of the glacier, scientists found that, at some point in the mid-20th century, the base of the glacier was dislodged from the seabed and retreated at a rate of 1.3 miles per year, twice the rate that scientists have recently observed.

This raises concerns that the glacier could experience another period of accelerated retreat in the near future, throwing off existing estimates for how long it could survive.

One of the study’s authors, marine geophysicist Robert Larter, described the glacier as “holding on today by its fingernails” and warned that “we should expect to see big changes over small timescales”.

If the Thwaites Ice Shelf did collapse, the glacier would gradually spill all of its ice into the ocean over the following years. This is expected to result in global floods and for global sea levels to rise by more than two feet.

Coastal areas around the world would likely feel the effects of such a rise, particularly those already affected by frequent coastal floods.