More Bad News from Antarctica

January 31, 2020

New data from Antarctica further underlines the description I gave in this vid from 2014.

Chris Mooney in the Washington Post:

Warm ocean water has been discovered underneath a massive glacier in West Antarctica, a troubling finding that could speed its melt in a region with the potential to eventually unleash more than 10 feet of sea-level rise.

The unprecedented research, part of a multimillion-dollar British and U.S. initiative to study the remote Thwaites Glacier, involved drilling through nearly 2,000 feet of ice to measure water temperatures in a narrow cavity where the glacier first connects with the ocean. This is one of the most difficult-to-reach locations on Earth.

At a region known as the “grounding line,” where the ice transitions between resting on bedrock and floating on the ocean, scientists measured water temperatures of about 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit). That is more than 2 degrees warmer than the freezing point in that location, said David Holland, a New York University glaciologist. He performed the research with Keith Nicholls of the British Antarctic Survey.

“That is really, really bad,” said Holland. “That’s not a sustainable situation for that glacier.”

Scientists already knew that Thwaites was losing massive amounts of ice — more than 600 billion tons over the past several decades, and most recently as much as 50 billion tons per year. And it was widely believed that this was occurring because a layer of relatively warmer ocean water, which circles Antarctica below the colder surface layer, had moved closer to shore and begun to eat away at the glaciers themselves, affecting West Antarctica in particular.

But that had not been directly confirmed because Thwaites is gigantic (larger than the state of Pennsylvania) and exceedingly difficult to reach.

“The biggest thing to say at the moment is, indeed, there is very warm water there, and clearly, it could not have been there forever, or the glacier could not be there,” Holland said.

Thwaites is the most worrying glacier in Antarctica because of its size — it is unusually wide, presenting a 75-mile front of ice to the ocean, without any rocks or mountains to hem it in. This means very large volumes of ice could break off and flow uninhibited through this region into the sea.

Even worse, Thwaites gets deeper and thicker from its oceanfront region back into its interior in the heart of West Antarctica. This is known to be an unstable configuration for a glacier, because as the ocean continues to eat away at its base, the glacier becomes thicker, so more ice is exposed to the ocean. In turn, that ice flows outward faster. Scientists call this “marine ice sheet instability.”

Researchers believe that as recently as some 100,000 years ago, West Antarctica was not a sheet of ice at all — but rather, an open ocean that later converted to glacier. The fear is that the melting now taking place could lead to a return to open ocean.

Granted, it would still take a very long time to melt all of that ice, but there’s a fear that it could begin in a substantial way in our lifetimes, worsening sea level rise.

Because Thwaites is so vast, the measurements were confined to a region known as its eastern ice shelf, where a floating part of the glacier is 600 meters (nearly 2,000 feet thick) and underlain by just 40 meters (about 130 feet) of water. Scientists drilled through the ice using a technique known as hot-water drilling, and then extended an instrumented cable to take measurements in the ocean cavity.

They also detected turbulent water in the area, suggesting that saltwater and freshwater are swirling together as the ice melts. This process may draw the warm water in toward the glacier and speed the losses.

“The key here is that they drilled very close to the grounding line,” said Eric Rignot, a researcher with NASA and the University of California who also studies Thwaites closely and commented on the findings. “We do not know much about ocean-ice interaction in that narrow part of the cavity, yet this is the crucial part for ice dynamics, glacier stability, fast retreat.”

“Is the water moving around and releasing heat to the ice efficiently, is it stagnant instead?” Rignot continued. “Our sense from remote sensing is that it is not stagnant but very actively melting ice. So having temperature measurements in that narrow part is essential.”

Rignot said the water is probably even warmer in other regions of Thwaites, which could retreat even faster than the spot where the measurements were taken.

Nicholls of the British Antarctic Survey said in an email from Antarctica that the relatively warm water they discovered was actually “associated with low (for the area) melt rates because of the low currents.” Still, he too affirmed the water was more than warm enough to melt ice.

Climate change is believed to be shifting winds around Antarctica, which in turn are connected to a warming of the tropics and shifting patterns of atmospheric circulation. The winds drive ocean currents, and the change has meant that the warm offshore layer, called circumpolar deep water, has been pushing in closer to shore, where it can melt ice.

Scientists say there is much more to learn about this process, but the most important fact is clear — warm water is causing Thwaites to melt and retreat.

“This is the first verification ever of warm water at a grounding zone on the Thwaites Glacier, arguably the most important one in West Antarctica,” said Holland. “So the pieces fit.”


23 Responses to “More Bad News from Antarctica”

  1. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    The ice shelf grounding lines were heading landward at 50 m/y in the 1970s. The thermodynamic processes were ‘interesting’ then A observed phenomenon requires no explanation! So it has begun again, or most likely continued, and it is bad.
    The thermodynamic processes are still mind blowing.

  2. grindupbaker Says:

    Eric Rignot estimated 6x-7x present calving rate for glaciers if their ice shelves go (perhaps he was including some grounding butressing also) so that’s:
    1,200 Gt / year * 5.5 = 6,600 Gt / year for Antarctica
    300 Gt / year * 5.5 = 1,650 Gt / year for Greenland
    The 8,250 Gt / year is 23 mm / year sea level rise (SLR) which Eric thinks might play out over the next 100-200 years. I would think the extra surface melt would only be a small increase to the 23 mm / year because ice has a lot of thermal mass.

  3. redskylite Says:

    I remember when I first started following these postings, the Antarctic was thought of as a stable, but sleeping giant, a distant threat, all the concern was in the North. Not so ten years later.

    The giant is fully awake.

    “The water under a vulnerable Antarctic glacier is warming. Its catastrophic collapse could trigger a dramatic increase in global sea level.”

    During an unprecedented scientific campaign on an Antarctic glacier notorious for contributions to sea-level, researchers took first-ever images at the glacier’s foundations on the ocean floor. The area is key to Thwaites Glacier’s potential to become more dangerous, and in the coming months, the research team hopes to give the world a clearer picture of its condition.

  4. grindupbaker Says:

    “Climate change is believed to be shifting winds around Antarctica” I say it’s all that ENSO trade winds speeding up that started in 1995 AD. I’m a 1-trick pony. I saw/heard something Australian scientist said to give me that notion. I’m not bothering to search for that again. Australian groughts too. I’m going with ENSO trade winds speeding up that started in 1995 AD for everything, it’s cheaper for me.

  5. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Rignot said the water is probably even warmer in other regions of Thwaites, which could retreat even faster than the spot where the measurements were taken.

    As the ice melts, its contours change, meaning the currents along the ice surfaces themselves are changing continuously.

  6. grindupbaker Says:

    A couple of years ago when I was pondering this I realized the (perhaps obvious) +ve feedback to ice melting at depth, freshening. It isn’t a +ve feedback to the warming but a systematic +ve feedback that’s always in play. Water warmer than -2.3 to -1.8 degrees (depending on depth) melts ice it touches. This freshens the water making it less dense. The lower pressure causes saltier, warmer water to push in down to the sea bed and shove the fresher, colder the water at the surface out to the face of the ice sheet. This reinforces the Ekman pumping from the westerly wnds that pushes the saltier, warmer water in at depth.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      I thought we had this all settled a few years back when we sacrificed those virgin goats and read their entrails? All this yadda-yadda about Thwaites and Pine Island—-does anyone doubt what the goat entrails told us back when?

      That continued warming was going produce some nasty results in Antarctica? Why do we sit here and navel gaze as the wolf that is no longer at the door but now inside the house proceeds to chew our feet off?

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        Well, if our feet are chewed off, how can we do anything else BUT sit?

        Are you proposing that we should be doing handstands over this news?

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Handstands? Of course not, GB. All I’m suggesting is that we don’t act so damned surprised when bad things happen—-that the evidence has been there for some time for those who care to see it.

          Do you need me to list out some more of the things that the goat entrails are telling us? No handstands there either.

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            How dare you give a serious reply to my comment, which was supposed to be purely humorous? Why does no one take my entertainment efforts seriously? Wait….

            Tell me more of these goat entrails of which you speak so eloquently. I anticipate a long and twisted tale of varied narrative aliments.

            I’ll be here all night. Yes, I have been drinking.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            The goat entrails told us the same things about worsening climate change that the scientists have been sneaking up on for all these years—-ice sheets disappearing, ocean warming and acidifying, weather changing and becoming more extreme, floods, drought, wildfires, the sixth extinction, etc.

            (And don’t drink too much tonight and start saying silly things here).

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            There you go again about depressing s**t. Completely missing the ground- and rib-breaking humor of my comment about “doing handstands”!

            Wtf? OK, I’ll spell it out for you.

            If you can’t walk, because you’re feet have been nibbled away by wolves…. the only way you can get across the room is by walkiing….. not on your missing feet, but on your hands!! Doing handstands !??….. Sigh.

            Jesum Crow. It’s like explaining jokes to Rain Man.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Well pardon me for being too rational to get your half-assed humor. If I had my feet chewed off and needed to get across the room, I’d be crawling on my hands and knees, not walking on my hands.

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            No, you wouldn’t be crawling on hands and knees, because your bloodied foot stumps would dragging painfully along the floor…..



            unless there was a perfectly smooth friction-less surface for your bloodied feet stumps to glide effortless along.

            Something perfectly flat and smooth – glassine … yes, yes – made of glass!

            And, if it was a surface made of glass, what better then to add solar panels under that glass! A SolarGlassWay! By Jove!!

      • grindupbaker Says:

        Yes. I’ve been trying with mixed success to discipline my mild annoyance at everything being *NEW* and more exciting because it’s necessary to keep making it like that or people will move on and away. Also, there’s always new people and an old thing is new to a new person. So I figure if it can definitely be an Ice Age start this month if Newfies got snow then Antarctica stuff can always be new. The 600 metre ice hole to put new measuring gadgets down is definitely new & interesting for the scientists doing the measuring & analysis.

        • redskylite Says:

          I do believe that these posts are targeted at the general public, especially those who are concerned (if not alarmed) by how our industrial revolution has impacted our climate, and what we can do to lessen the impact for our children and children’s children. It provides information and a bit of controversy from time to time.

          The article is about “unprecedented research” and it is news, whether you find it exciting, concerning, alarming or interesting depends on your mindest.

          I find it concerning, if not alarming, but am glad that it is being publicized – we cannot pretend we didn’t know, unless we think all science and research is an idiotic waste of time and money, and their are a few crazies who believe that.

          Thank god they haven’t suppressed/censored news yet and thank god for this blog.

          NYT “Temperatures at a Florida-Size Glacier in Antarctica Alarm Scientists”

          Live Science “Surprisingly warm water found on underside of Antarctica’s ‘Doomsday Glacier'”

          The Hill “Scientists make worrying discovery under Antarctica’s ‘doomsday glacier'”

          CBS ‘Scientists alarmed to discover warm water at “vital point” beneath Antarctica’s “doomsday glacier”

          Interesting Engineering ” Researchers Drill Deep Into One of the Most Important Antarctica Glaciers



          Move on nothing to see here…

  7. colettebytes Says:

    So, I have read all the comments here… I profess to know nothing about the real scientific measurements, so do any of you have any generalised predictions of when we might see this catastrophic flood as the Thwaite Glacier collapse? Time lines are always helpful.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      That’s the problem with all of the science—-although it gets more specific as more studies are done, it remains a moving target, and the target date always moves closer. The old “by the end of the century” now appears dead, as does even “by 2050”—–the doomists would say 2025 and the years after are going to be bad years, and I myself tend to agree with that, although 2030 is a bit more conservative.

      The point is, we are not sure of the future—-just keep watching—-follow the Inside Climate and Skeptical Science sites, along with Crock.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Like droughts, mega-glacier collapses are “disasters in slow motion”. There is no human-noticeable point where all the crops fall over or all the sea walls breach at the same time. (Refer, now, to the heavily used analogy of boiling a frog.)

      First, the full 3+ meters from Thwaites would happen over centuries, but that is in an environment where Greenland and Pine Island Glacier are also melting, and the ocean is also undergoing thermal expansion.

      Consider a seaside town calculating how much money it is willing to spend on a sea wall intended to protect the town for 40 years. Say it costs $70 million for a 1.5 meter wall or $135 million for a 2.5 meter wall (cost/height is nonlinear). If you’ve spent any time in town budget meetings, there will be talk about raising local tax rates or issuing bonds, taxpayers will complain about the greater expense, and many will end up convincing themselves that the lower wall—let’s not get alarmist here, councilman!—will do the job. Then there’s the selection of the contractors to build it, who of course will be both honest and competent and finish the project near schedule and near budget. Multiply this scenario times scores of sea-side towns just on the US East Coast alone, and add in the increasing frequency of large storms and higher storm surges and tax bases shrinking as housing values fall.

      I can’t give you a time line, but I can pretty much guarantee that decision-makers in coastal towns will give one much more weight than they’re worth.

  8. Gingerbaker Says:

    “so do any of you have any generalised predictions of when we might see this catastrophic flood as the Thwaite Glacier collapse? Time lines are always helpful.”

    Please disregard these two. They are mountebanks, charlatans… mere four-flushing sharpies. They won’t give you a proper answer.

    Allow me to do so. It will happen at precisely 2:11 PM.

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      Seriously, though, there will be no “catastrophic flood”. There will be hundreds of years of ever- and slowly-accelerating sea level rise.

      At some point in the early to mid phases of this sea level rise, all our seacoast cities will suffer a catastrophic storm, whose storm surge will overwhelm the place for many miles inland, destroying the local, regional, and eventually, the national economic structure.

      And then the sea will keep on rising for centuries.

      Remember the recent photos of Houston? Some places were under 70 feet of water. Imagine that sort of thing – and worse – happening to NYC, the financial capital of the world. It isn’t going to be pretty.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Uhhh….., GB? Seventy FEET of water?

        And in geologic time, which is the only kind of time the Earth deals in, the “flood” will be quite rapid AND catastrophic—-well beyond the ability of the biosphere to adapt to it.

  9. […] via More Bad News from Antarctica — Climate Denial Crock of the Week […]

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