SETH BORENSTEINAssociated Press
Antarctica’s so-called Doomsday Glacier, nicknamed because it’s huge and falling apart, is mainly thwarting an international effort to determine just how dangerously vulnerable it is.
A large iceberg has broken away from the deteriorating Thwaites Glacier and, together with sea ice, is preventing two research vessels with dozens of scientists from examining how fast its crucial ice shelf is collapsing.
Scientists around the world are part of a multi-year, $50 million international effort to study the Florida-sized glacier by land, sea and below during the brief period when distant ice is accessible during the summer. Antarctic.
Plans to examine the glacier’s crucial ice shelf have not been stopped but are somewhat sidetracked, officials said.
It was the last of three international scientific expeditions to target the vulnerable ice shelf, said British Antarctic Survey geophysicist Rob Larter, chief scientist on the first search mission.
New York University environmental scientist David Holland, who planned to drill deep through the Thwaites ice shelf to measure the heat of the water below, is painfully close but not quite there.
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Improvising, Holland decamped to the nearby Dotson Ice Shelf to do his research where no human had been before. He hopes that along this blinding white ice and its rugged frozen cliffs, he can learn about the unseen warm water of the ocean that nibbles Dotson and Thwaites from below. The smaller Dotson Ice Shelf is about 87 miles (140 kilometers) west of the Thwaites Ice Shelf.
The Ice Shelf “is the most important part of Thwaites and it protects and hides from us,” Holland said in an early Dotson Ice Shelf video interview. He called the Dotson Sea Ice “this beautiful white desert-like landscape, dazzling white in fact. And it will all disappear and be replaced by the Pacific Ocean in due time.”
“No one can make it to Thwaites this year,” Holland told The Associated Press. “We tried to cut it for a week. Couldn’t do it. So we’re next.”
Thwaites spawns more icebergs as it collapses, Holland said. This iceberg was Thwaites’ tongue or leading edge until it broke about 20 years ago, Larter said. It measures about 43 miles by 28 miles (70 kilometers by 44 kilometers), almost the size of Rhode Island, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
A big part of the problem is that loads of sea ice have gravitated around the huge iceberg. And that’s ironic — and inconvenient for researchers — because Antarctica’s global sea ice is unusually low for this time of year, Larter said.
While parts of the edges of Thwaites show fast-spreading cracks like a car windshield, safety climbers inspected where the researchers set up camp on Dotson, and Holland isn’t much concerned about the danger. As he speaks, a red helicopter lands to evacuate one of his eight team members with a sprained ankle.
The key to Thwaites future is the sea ice and its language. These edges with warm water below edge the ocean and provide “back support” that holds the rest of the glacier in place, Holland said.
What worries scientists is that the leading edge of the huge glacier is disintegrating in many places. Even though the full collapse of the glacier could take hundreds or thousands of years, the rim collapses much sooner.
“I think the sea ice will be gone within a few years, maybe even decades,” Holland said via Zoom on a computer on an outdoor table in 24-hour sunshine, where the morning temperature was -4 (- 20 Celsius). “But the actual inside ice, that’s the really unknown question.”
If all of Thwaites collapses, it could raise the seas around the globe by more than 65 centimeters, but that could take hundreds of years, scientists say.
“Ultimately, over time, it’s going to rewrite the global coastline,” Holland said.
While places like Greenland – where in 2019 Holland studied the melting of the Helheim Glacier – are melting due to warm air above, Thwaites and its neighboring glaciers are in worse shape because they are melting from the hot water under the ice, which works faster, Holland said. This is partly due to natural weather variations, but on top of that climate change plays a role, he said.
Computer models show that greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels “tilt the winds in a way that brings more warm water south,” Holland said.
This warm subterranean ocean water is what Holland came to study with plans to drill hundreds of feet and place sensors under the ice in the warm water pools. The heat is relative – it is around 32 to 34 degrees (0 to 1 degree Celsius), which is still liquid because salt water needs a lower temperature to freeze.
University of Washington ice scientist Ian Joughin, who is not part of the research consortium, warned that although Thwaites is a big concern, especially collapsing giant ice cliffs, early computer simulations show that it will happen in 200 years.
“We need to take these ice cream parlors seriously without looking like Chicken Little,” Joughin said in an email.
But if Thwaites leaves, nearby glaciers could follow, said Paul Cutler, director of the US National Science Foundation’s glaciology program.
The South Korean icebreaker ship Araon that Holland traveled on has a helicopter, so they were able to improvise a landing at Dotson. But the US National Science Foundation’s research vessel, the Nathaniel B. Palmer, which has about 35 scientists and two underwater drones, has not yet been able to get to Thwaites and has no helicopters.
So the Palmer researchers are studying Dotson and hope to wait out the iceberg, the NSF’s Cutler said. Earlier, researchers from other parts of Antarctica put measuring devices on Thwaites, he noted.
For Holland, there is an appreciation for nature, even its monotonous whiteness, where the only sounds are the wind and an occasional seagull.
“It’s a bit of an isolated place, but in a beautiful way,” he said. “It’s very serene. And it’s a bit of a shame that it’s all gone.”