NASA Study Shows World’s Most Dangerous Glacier Could Be About To Collapse

A glacier near the water.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

A NASA-led study of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antartica has uncovered a giant cavity that appears to be growing, according to the Daily Mail. The findings have raised concerns about the stability of the glacier, which has long been dubbed the most dangerous in the world.

The Thwaites Glacier is approximately the same size as the state of Washington. It is up to 13,100 feet deep in places and, if it collapsed, scientists believe it contains enough ice to increase global sea levels by as much as two feet. They also believe it is fundamental in supporting several other glaciers which, if they all collapsed, could see sea levels rise by an additional eight feet.

The Thwaites Glacier has been melting at increasing speed over the past 50 years. Ice discharge in the region is up by 77 percent since 1973.

The scientists undertaking this latest study had expected to find some evidence of deterioration of the glacier, but they had thought this would mainly come from seawater eroding the ice from below.

But both the size and rapid growth of this new cavity has surprised them. The new cavity is estimated to have contained 14 billion tons of ice and scientists say this must have all melted over the past three years.

The study was carried out using ice-penetrating radar, which is part of NASA’s Operation IceBridge. This aerial study has been going on since 2010 and is intended to identify associations between environment conditions at both the North and South poles and climate change. The study also factored in data from Italian and German spaceborne synthetic aperture radars.

The lead author of the study, Pietro Milillo of JPL, explained the significance of what they had found.

“[The size of] a cavity under a glacier plays an important role in melting. As more heat and water get under the glacier, it melts faster.”

Following up on this study, there will be a five-year field project on the Thwaites Glacier run in conjunction between the U.S. National Science Foundation and the British National Environmental Research Council.

This will begin later this year and hopes to find out more about what is happening to the glacier, including more precise details about its grounding line. This is the point where the ice lifts off the ground and begins to float on the sea.

It is believed that warmer waters could be melting this grounding line at a greater rate than previously thought. The Thwaites Glacier’s grounding line is believed to have retreated by nearly nine miles between 1992 and 2011.