Published: Tue, February 05, 2019
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica developed a cavity almost as large as Manhattan

Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica developed a cavity almost as large as Manhattan

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.

This huge opening at the bottom of the Thwaites Glacier - a mass infamously dubbed the "most risky glacier in the world" - is so big it represents an overt chunk of the estimated 252 billion tonnes of ice Antarctica loses every year.

Thwaites Glacier, approximately the size of Florida, once contained over 14 billion tons of frozen water, enough to raise the world's sea level by over 2 feet (65 centimeters). The research has shown that Thwaites Glacier is peeling off from the bedrock beneath it, meaning more of the glacier's base is exposed to warming waters.

The Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica covers 182,000 square kilometres - an area the size of Great Britain - and is one of the biggest in the world.

"Thanks to a new generation of satellites, we can finally see the detail".

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.

"[The size of] a cavity under a glacier plays an important role in melting", said Pietro Milillo of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a news release by the organization.

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Thwaites Glacier alone holds enough ice above sea level to raise sea levels by more than 65cm if it was to melt. Hopefully, the upcoming worldwide collaboration will help researchers piece together the different systems at work under and around the glacier, the researchers said. Researchers estimate the ice melted in the space of just three years.

Thwaites Glacier is now responsible for about four per cent of global sea level rise, researchers said. Immediately, we'd get about 2 feet of sea level rise.

Instead, the team used airborne and satellite ice-penetrating radars to reveal the cavity.

For Thwaites, "We are discovering different mechanisms of retreat", Millilo said.

It's feared the melting of "the world's most unsafe glacier" could cause catastrophic flooding across the planet. Scientists have long thought that the glacier was not attached firmly to the bedrock beneath it. The region is the fastest melting part of Antarctica, and losing the land ice could lead to more than 3.05m of sea level rise.

In that region, the rate of grounding-line retreat doubled from about 0.6 kilometres a year from 1992 to 2011 to 1.2 kilometres a year from 2011 to 2017, researchers said.

Researchers hope these new findings will help other scientists better understand the connection between the climate and glaciers.

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