The all-important Thwaites Glacier ice shelf in Antarctica may be as little as three years away from collapse, threatening to release a river of ice that would drastically raise sea levels, according to research presented last week at the annual American Geophysical Union conference.
Planet-warming pollution has already raised global temperatures more than 1.1°C. And the effects are particularly profound at the poles, where global heating has seriously undermined regions once locked in ice, writes the Washington Post.
Released during the conference, an annual Arctic Report Card testified to the accelerating erosion in ecosystem stability in the region. Permafrost continues to disintegrate, polar waters continue to overheat (with devastating consequences to all marine life), and warmer land temperatures upend distribution of flora and fauna, as seen in the sudden explosion of beaver dams in western Alaska.
A truly “weird situation,” observes CBC News, this incursion of the famously industrious rodents bodes further ill for permafrost, as the standing pools of water they create with the dams they build will accelerate thawing.
The Arctic Report Card, the work of 111 scientists from 12 countries, also confirmed the peril that a melting north poses to the some five million people who call it home. Thawing permafrost endangers everything from sacred grave sites to highways, as melting sea ice becomes too thin to travel and hunt upon and more frequent flooding is worsened by glacial meltwater.
“For many Arctic residents, climate change is a threat multiplier—worsening the dangers of whatever other crises come their way,” writes the Post. The Report Card pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as a case in point.
And these dangers will soon reach the rest of the planet. For millennia, the Earth’s icy white poles have bounced as much as 66% of incoming solar radiation back into space, helping to keep things cool.
Describing the feedback loop now in play, the Post explains that ever-expanding regions of ice-free dark water will mean yet more global heating, leading to yet more melt.
Commenting on the three separate heat waves that swept across Greenland this year, causing some 77 trillion pounds of ice to melt away and rain to fall where it had never been seen before, glaciologist and report co-editor Twila Moon cautioned that in no way should we understand this to be a “new normal” for the North. “It’s merely a pit stop on a path to an even stranger and more dangerous future,” writes the Post.
Strange and dangerous is an apt description for what is unfolding across the Thwaites Glacier ice shelf in Antarctica. Sharing her research at the conference, Oregon State University glaciologist Erin Pettit said it was “hugely surprising” to see how quickly the critical ice shelf—which has long acted as a kind of protective buttress against the collapse of the massive Thwaites glacier itself—is disintegrating.
Such a collapse would have profound consequences: whereas today the eroding ice shelf “contributes up to 4% of global sea level rise,” that share could increase “by as much as 25%” should the shelf fall entirely into the sea, explains the Post.
And the ensuing collapse of the main Thwaites glacier would likely “destabilize other glaciers along the West Antarctic.”
But doesn’t have to be this way, the Post notes, with research suggesting that “achieving the best case climate scenarios could cut the volume of ice lost from Greenland by 75%.”