More Trouble at Totten Glacier

May 19, 2016

Today’s headline in the Washington Post is another illustration of why readers and viewers at this blog get some of the best early-warning info on the issues of climate.

My video above, “Trouble at Totten Glacier” discussed a little known, but important and unstable, part of the Antarctic ice sheet, with a key, but very young, scientist, Jamin Greenbaum.  You saw it here first.

One more reason to support Dark Snow this year:


Washington Post:

Scientists ringing alarm bells about the melting of Antarctica have focused most of their attention, so far, on the smaller West Antarctic ice sheet, which is grounded deep below sea level and highly exposed to the influence of warming seas. But new research published in the journal Nature Wednesday reaffirms that there’s a possibly even bigger — if slower moving — threat in the much larger ice mass of East Antarctica.

The Totten Glacier holds back more ice than any other in East Antarctica, which is itself the biggest ice mass in the world by far. Totten, which lies due south of Western Australia, currently reaches the ocean in the form of a floating shelf of ice that’s 90 miles by 22 miles in area. But the entire region, or what scientists call a “catchment,” that could someday flow into the sea in this area is over 200,000 square miles in size — bigger than California.

Moreover, in some areas that ice is close to 2.5 miles thick, with over a mile of that vertical extent reaching below the surface of the ocean. It’s the very definition of vast.

Warmer waters in this area could, therefore, ultimately be even more damaging than what’s happening in West Antarctica — and the total amount of ice that could someday be lost would raise sea levels by as much as 13 feet.

“This is not the first part of East Antarctica that’s likely to show a multi-meter response to climate change,” said Alan Aitken, the new study’s lead author and a researcher with the University of Western Australia in Perth. “But it might be the biggest in the end, because it’s continually unstable as you go towards the interior of the continent.”

The research — which found that Totten Glacier, and the ice system of which it is part, has retreated many times in the past and contains several key zones of instability — was conducted in collaboration with a team of international scientists from the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. A press statement about the study from the U.S. group, based at the University of Texas at Austin, described the study as showing that “vast regions of the Totten Glacier in East Antarctica are fundamentally unstable.”

Finally, recent research has suggested that Totten can only lose a tiny 4.2 percent of its remaining ice shelf before the structure starts losing the ability to brace the larger glacier, holding it in place. It all points to a region of enormous vulnerability, and one that is already undergoing change.

The radar, magnetic and gravity measurements conducted in the study found key regions where Totten Glacier and the connected systems of ice behind it lie atop plenty of sediment — suggesting the glacier retreats rapidly in these areas. But it also detected areas where there isn’t much sediment at all, suggesting that it grinds away in these locations a great deal, or in the words of UT-Austin’s Jamin Greenbaum, one of the researchers behind the study, is able to “ping-pong back and forth” over long time periods.

More here on Antarctica, and the instability of the West Antarctic Sheet.


and here, a portion of the key interview with Glaciologist Eric Rignot that left myself, John Cook, and Dr. James Byrne, peeling our jaws off the floor, in December of 2014.


15 Responses to “More Trouble at Totten Glacier”

  1. Gingerbaker Says:

    I guess it really is Hot in Totten.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    Now that we’ve had fun playing with words, let’s get serious about the Trouble at Totten. This is another “We said it might be looking bad but it’s really worse than we thought” type of announcement—-the kind that we are hearing ever more frequently from the climate scientists.

    WHEN the F**K is anyone going to pay attention to this? Just because there’s some “uncertainty” and we can’t put an exact date on it, is that any reason to be ignoring it?

    When it happens (and it will, even if it waits decades), it will be irretrievable, and all the folks in South Florida and other low-lying places will no longer be able to get to and from the malls so that they can SHOP!—-and that would be a total disaster for the American Way of Life.

    • otter17 Says:

      I don’t know, one would think that the unhinging of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would get a significant fraction of the public up in arms, but it seems that got only cursory attention.

      This may be an interesting problem for social psychologists to study. What type of event or set of statements would it take for a significant fraction of our primate species to address the issue as recommended by the body of science?

      The processes underway on our planet don’t care about our psychology, though, and most of the big change regions are away from large population centers. Heck, maybe it is in the cards that no significant event occurs that stirs the human emotions enough to take action until 2030 or 2040? Maybe no significant leadership comes together and allows the Paris accord to lag behind for a decade or so similar to some parts of Kyoto?

      I have personally made peace with the possibilities of failure (or at least much more failure than we have already displayed), but keep going at it nonetheless.

      • Your comment reminded me of the observation by Paul Martin, from his book Twilight of the Mammoths (great book, btw):

        “In a sense we are like fruit flies, which live but a few weeks and cannot experience most seasonal changes, much less a year. We cannot know from experience the history of the planet Earth. Most of it is destined to be as abstract to the layperson as the dimensions of the universe.”

        • otter17 Says:

          Hmm, that does sound like an interesting book. One hopes something stirs the imagination of the collective fruit fly cloud on this planet to hold onto the Paris agreement and follow through ahead of schedule.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            The “collective fruit fly cloud on this planet” is not going to do enough soon enough to fend off disaster, never mind follow through on Paris AHEAD of schedule—-period. It will be BAU until some “significant event” occurs on a worldwide basis and gets the attention of a majority (and it will have to impact the developed nations most heavily, since they are the ones who have created the AGW problem, continue to profit most from it, and have their heads buried deepest in the sand—-until they are on board, little will happen).

            Raging wildfires, droughts, catastrophic downpours and flooding, and waves of tornadoes on a daily basis are already with us, but they’re not yet everywhere, and until it’s happening in everyone’s backyard we will do little or nothing.

            Once it’s “everywhere”, our response will be to leap blindly and madly into geo-engineering and “climate management”—we will start seeding the atmosphere with sulfur, the oceans with iron, putting reflective umbrellas in space, and rolling reflective blankets out over the ice caps.

            Take a look at the two lead articles here—how we are dealing with emissions from planes and ships and the drought in South Africa—-for a taste of how futile the effort is.

          • otter17 Says:

            Yes, it may be a climate related event, or possibly (unlikely) a group of leadership gets motivation ramped up across the world.

            Anyway, I recall you have read “The Great Disruption” before. Somewhere about 1/3 through the book if I recall, Gilding describes what he found to be the most likely. He thinks that it would take much more procrastination, a loss of a billion or so human lives, and then a rapid world war scale change. He was tirelessly optimistic about that world war effort working, but as you say geo-engineering will probably be involved. Nobody is all that impressed with any of the geo-engineering schemes so far presented. The only one’s even moderately acceptable, in my view, are those that filter CO2 out of the atmosphere, rather than modify sunlight or another of Earth’s parameters. It would be preferable to try to return to Earth’s atmosphere prior to the large spike in CO2 emissions, if possible.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Yes, Gilding in The Great Disruption speaks to the level of “disruption” it will take to get everyone focused on really attacking the AGW problem, and it’s going to be very painful for for the human race, particularly those in the poorest and least developed countries.

            You said in another comment in this thread that you have “made peace with the possibilities of failure but keep going at it nonetheless”. 1happywoman and pendantry made similar comments on one of the Dark Snow Fundraising threads. I feel the same way—-I have been watching the impending disaster approach for 50 years now, and we will be lucky if ANY of us survive, but there is no real alternative to “keeping on”.

            We are indeed the “fruit fly cloud”, and our inability to look beyond our short lifespans and understand the long term history of the planet is going to doom us. I have touted Dumanoski’s short and sweet book “The End of the Long Summer” as perhaps the best I’ve read on the evolution of the planet. Like Gilding, Dumanoski ends with some “optimism”, but also like Gilding she is not very convincing. Nor are any of the others who examine the problem and present “solutions” from diggerent viewpoints—Nicholas Stern and Naomi Klein from the “economist”, Lovelock from the macroecological, Hedges and Hartmann from the political/sociological. I think they all understand that it’s a mostly futile effort, but who’s going to buy a book that says there’s no hope? Look at what’s happened to McPherson for speaking truth.

            Actually, I think anyone with a brain and some science knowledge has come to the same conclusion—-it’s likely too late. The same goes for the authors I’ve mentioned and scientists like Mann, Rignot, Box, Hansen, (and our own Peter Sinclair). I would love to hook each of them up to a polygraph and ask the following questions:

            1) Do you think AGW is reversible if we get moving within the next 5 or 10 years?
            2) Do you think mankind will mobilize and make the effort in time?
            3) Do you wear as “happy” a face as you can about AGW because you don’t want to be a doomsayer even though you know deep down that we’re doomed?

            The polygraph will force them to answer “Perhaps, one must remain hopeful”, “No, it doesn’t seem likely”, and a simple “Yes” to those questions.

          • otter17 Says:

            Well, I believe there are varying degrees of failure involved, here. In a sense, one could say our species has already failed somewhat, even if emissions were to stop immediately today there are certain effects locked in for which others will pay. On the other extreme, we make every effort to release as much GHGs as possible, with permafrost, forests, and oceans increasingly helping along the way over the next several decades. That would be a substantially more dismal failure, of course.

            I don’t know much about McPherson, though, from some of the presentations I have seen featuring him with a public audience, I have not been so impressed. Then again, maybe he does have the scientific backing for his claims on ecological system-wide collapse (or however he phrased it). It would be interesting to see the polygraph test, but there are some instances that are close like the “isthishowyoufeel” website featuring candid climate scientist letters. Dr. Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute seemed quite dark concerning his analogy to watching a burning building, but his calls for help falling on deaf ears, or a madman shutting down any communications with first responders. Still, the scientists might still on average not share their thoughts knowing the letters would be made public.

            In any case, there are also variations on being “too late”. Sure, 1.5C and 2C temp rise may be longshots, but may as well shoot for them. Failing that, a 3C world is preferable to a 4C or greater world. Maybe we get unlucky, the card dealt is the clathrates release suddenly, and that means “too late”. On the other hand, holding it together through a temporary 3C world while filtering and sequestering out GHGs from the atmosphere may be the hand we manage to pull off (although still probably a quite crummy situation).

  3. I’m glad this particular glacier is finally having the spotlight shown on it. A year ago I wrote a research essay on tipping points and during the process of writing the essay I learned of the Totten glacier, which at that time seemed to be off of most everybody’s radar. I learned that the entry point to the Totten basin is very narrow, and the ice there acts like a choke-point dam holding back the bulk of ice behind it, and if that goes, so goes the rest of the glacier…

    • Lionel Smith Says:

      I’ll point up the utility GeoMapApp which amongst many other things can be used to draw profile transects across areas of interest.

      Sorry if you have seen this link from me previously but we may have different eyes viewing this page.

  4. […] is a video by Peter Sinclair that dates to a bit earlier than this research was published, but covers the same […]

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