Sunday, 17 February, 2019

NASA Discovers 'Disturbing' Massive Cavity Below a Giant Glacier in Antarctica

017 thwaites glacer Thwaites Glacier
Frank Williams | 01 February, 2019, 20:11

NASA researchers say the mysterious cavity is growing at an "explosive" rate.

The NASA-led team were surprised by the size of the cavity, which once contained 14 billion tons of ice.

"We have suspected for years that Thwaites was not tightly attached to the bedrock beneath it", said Eric Rignot of the University of California, Irvine, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Its melt from above and below is being aided by newly discovered cavities below the ice, as chronicled in Science Advances on Wednesday.

Scientists spotted the concealed void thanks to a new generation of satellites, Rignot noted.

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.

By observing the undersides of Antarctic glaciers, researchers hope to calculate how fast global sea levels will rise in response to climate change.

And in calamitous news for low-lying counties, NASA researchers have revealed the presence of a previously-unknown yawning cavity at the bottom of Thwaites Glacier.

Once gone, surrounding glaciers will have no obstacle in their path, speeding up their melting and the potential release of enough water to raise sea levels by as much as 2.4m.

As the loss of these glaciers could result in the inundation of major cities, such as NY, new research teams are set to travel to this, one of the hardest to reach areas on Earth.

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The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration will begin its field experiments in the Southern Hemisphere summer of 2019-20.

Thwaites Glacier plays an instrumental role in the story of rising sea levels and climate change, so there's never been more of a drive to study and understand it. A radar was used to peer through the ice to see to the bottom of the glacier. They found the "grounding line"-the point where the ice lifts off the bedrock and extends out into the ocean-is shifting". When this happens, the grounding line retreats inland.

"We are discovering different mechanisms of retreat", first author of the new paper, JPL radar scientist Pietro Milillo explains.

The huge cavity is under the main trunk of the glacier on its western side - the side farther from the West Antarctic Peninsula.

From 1992 to 2011, the centre of the Thwaites grounding line retreated by almost 14 kilometres. In that region, the rate of grounding-line retreat doubled from about 0.4 miles (0.6 kilometers) a year from 1992 to 2011 to 0.8 miles (1.2 kilometers) a year from 2011 to 2017.

Thwaites Glacier, curiously, isn't melting in a uniform way.

These findings show the complexity of ice-ocean interactions. Hopefully, the upcoming worldwide collaboration will help researchers piece together the different systems at work under and around the glacier, the researchers said. The melting of this glacier could lead to as much as 10 feet of sea level rise over the next century or so.

The Antarctic consists of vast swathes of ice and snow held together by an array of glaciers and massive ice shelves.

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