Antarctica’s Doomsday Glacier Is Melting Far Faster Than Scientists Feared

By: Georgia | Published: May 21, 2024

The “Doomsday Glacier,” more formally known as Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, has become a focal point of global concern due to its accelerating melt, largely driven by warm ocean waters. 

The complete dissolution of this glacier could elevate global sea levels by as much as two feet, presenting a formidable threat.

Signs of Intensified Melting

Recently released studies reveal unsettling “vigorous melting” at Thwaites Glacier, exacerbated by the warm seawater that flows beneath it. 

Satellite imagery showing the detailed texture of Thwaites Glacier's surface including the eastern ice shelf and surrounding sea ice

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This process is occurring more aggressively than previously thought, heralding complications for future sea level predictions and coastal management.


Waters Reach Deeper than Expected

Eric Rignot from the University of California, Irvine, who led this groundbreaking study, shared with USA Today, “The water is able to penetrate beneath the ice over much longer distances than we thought.” 

A modern office building under clear blue skies, flanked by the American flag and the Californian state flag on tall flagpoles

Source: Wikimedia Commons

He added, “It’s kind of sending a shock wave down our spine to see that water moving kilometers.”

Reevaluating Future Sea Levels

The implications of these findings are profound, poised to reshape how scientists model and predict future sea levels. 

Three researchers in red winter gear observing large icebergs on a clear day in Antarctica

Source: Torsten Dederichs/Unsplash

Rignot explains, “This process will speed up the results of models that scientists use to predict future sea levels,” stressing a need for revised coastal and urban planning strategies.

Stability in Peril

Thwaites Glacier has been identified as one of the most unstable regions in Antarctica. 

Close-up aerial view of a deeply cracked ice shelf in Antarctica, showcasing the intricate patterns and the deep blue crevasses

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Christine Dow of the University of Waterloo, who contributed to the study, highlights the glacier’s precarious situation: “The equivalent of 60 centimeters (two feet) of sea-level rise.”

Misjudging the Melting Speed

There’s an emerging consensus that the rate of change at Thwaites Glacier may be underestimated. 

Satellite view capturing the extensive spread of sea ice near Antarctica with clouds partially obscuring the view, highlighting the vast icy landscape

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dow expresses a significant concern: “The worry is that we are underestimating the speed that the glacier is changing, which would be devastating for coastal communities around the world.”


Pioneering Observation Techniques

To track these changes, the team employed sophisticated high-resolution satellite radar technology

A group of people in a small inflatable boat observe a large iceberg with a distinctive archway in Antarctica

Source: Long Ma/Unsplash

This has allowed them to capture a clearer picture of how warm water channels beneath the glacier, offering new insights into its behavior and evolution.


Countdown to Collapse?

A 2021 study raised alarms that the ice shelf buttressing Thwaites might fail within five years. 

A panoramic view of a sprawling Antarctic landscape, featuring rugged ice formations and a small boat navigating through scattered ice floes in the foreground

Source: James Eades/Unsplash

By 2022, the glacier seemed to be barely holding on, described as hanging on “by its fingernails,” which vividly illustrates its rapid degradation.


Thwaites' Global Role

As one of the world’s most rapidly changing and unstable glaciers, Thwaites plays a critical role in global sea-level discussions and broader climate change research. 

Black and white satellite image showing the fragmented ice and crevasses of Thwaites Glacier

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Its dynamic nature keeps scientists on edge as they study its every move.


A Colossal Ice Giant

Thwaites Glacier spans an impressive 74,000 square miles, roughly the size of Florida, and its grounding line dips between 2,600 to 3,900 feet.

Expansive view of a flat and seemingly endless Antarctic ice field under a clear blue sky, with subtle shadows accentuating the uneven surface of the snow

Source: Paul Summers/Unsplash

Its massive scale complicates both monitoring and prediction efforts.


Why Monitoring Matters

The swift changes at Thwaites Glacier illustrate the pressing need for ongoing surveillance and research. 

A wide-open ice pit in Antarctica, surrounded by large blocks of ice and snow

Source: Paul Summers/Unsplash

Understanding these shifts is crucial for accurately forecasting their impacts and preparing adequate global responses.


A Concern for All

The fate of Thwaites Glacier transcends scientific interest and has palpable implications for populations worldwide. 

Interior view of an ice cave in Antarctica, with light filtering through the blue ice, creating a serene and almost otherworldly atmosphere inside the cave

Source: Torsten Dederichs/Unsplash

The ongoing studies provide critical data necessary for formulating strategies to enhance climate resilience and fortify coastal defenses globally. Vigilance in monitoring this glacier is paramount for anticipating and mitigating its potential effects on sea levels globally.