Climate catastrophe may surge sea level by 25% in as little as 5 years

Glaciers in Antarctica are retreating due to warmer ocean temperatures but an unmanned submarine and new satellite images confirm the disquieting information that things are worse than previously believed and it could be melting faster than we previously thought.

Satellite images presented at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union show several large, diagonal cracks extending across the floating ice wedge, which means that the warming ocean is eroding the eastern ice shelf from below and a devastating collapse may occur sooner than expected.

Until recently, the ice shelf holding back one of Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier was seen as the most stable part of the dangerous, Florida-sized frozen expanse that already contributes about four percent of annual global sea-level rise.

Along with the Pine Island Glacier, Thwaites—sometimes referred to as the Doomsday Glacier—has been described as part of the “weak underbelly” of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, due to its apparent vulnerability to significant retreat but the eastern portion of the notorious ice floe melted and moved more slowly than the rest.

As one of Antarctica’s fastest melting glaciers, Thwaites Glacier has lost an estimated 595 billion tons of ice since the 1980s, contributing to a four percent rise in global sea levels since that time.

This map illustrates the potential impact of a massive rise in sea level that could result from an ice shelf collapse that is predicted to occur in the next three to five years, with devasting effect on the human population. Water will cover land that today is home to 12.3 million Americans.

The Doomsday Glacier acts like a cork in a wine bottle, preventing the rest of the ice in the region from flowing into the sea, so its collapse could potentially take the rest of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet with it, causing a 10-foot rise in global sea levels within the next three to five years.

If the U.S. encountered an ocean that is 10 feet higher, it would result in the loss of 28,800 square miles of land, which today is home to 12.3 million people.

Scientists discovered a series of worrying weaknesses in the ice shelf, suggesting that this important buttress against sea-level rise could shatter within the next three to five years.

Thwaites Glacier has been on climate scientists’ radars for two decades now but they didn’t know just how fast it was melting, or how close it was to complete collapse until they sent an unmanned submarine below the ice shelf and the latest satellite images confirm that possibility.

The first measurements ever performed in the dark waters under the 74,000 square mile chunk of ice revealed a previously underestimated current of warm water is flowing from the east, whittling away at several vital “pinning points” that anchor the shelf to the land.

“Both the Arctic and Antarctica are undergoing dramatic changes. There is a pressing need to understand the scope of these changes and the climate processes that underpin them,” says Priscilla Mooney, a climate scientist at NORCE Norwegian Research Centre and the Bjerknes Center for Climate Research, who is leading an international team comprised of researchers from the Europe, China, Japan, Russia, Norway, UK, Ukraine, and the US.

“International cooperation is key to assessing climate impacts in the polar regions,” says Mooney. “It requires a broad range of expertise and infrastructure, which is why it is important to bring together leading experts from all around the world to tackle this problem.”

“Recent research shows that the ice shelf is losing its grip on a submarine shoal that acts as a pinning point and the shear margin that separates TEIS from the Thwaites Glacier Tongue has extended, further weakening the TEIS connection to the pinning point,” said an analysis of the satellite images. “A sequence of Sentinel-1 radar imagery shows that parallel wing and comb cracks have recently formed rifts at high angles to the main shear margin and are propagating into the central part of the ice shelf at rates as high as 2km per year.”

A ‘plain language summary of the satellite image study is quite stark: “The Thwaites Eastern Ice Shelf is the floating terminus of the Thwaites Glacier, one of the fastest-changing glaciers in Antarctica and contributing as much as four percent of global sea-level rise today,” it says.

“This floating ice shelf is stabilized offshore by a marine shoal and acts as a dam to slow the flow of ice off the continent into the ocean. If this floating ice shelf breaks apart, the Thwaites Glacier will accelerate and its contribution to sea-level rise will increase by as much as 25 percent,” said the report. “Over the last several years, satellite radar imagery shows many new fractures opening up. Similar to a growing crack in the windshield of a car, a slowly growing crack means the windshield is weak and a small bump to the car might cause the windshield to suddenly break apart into hundreds of panes of glass.”

Not so Shore anymore… The entire New Jersey shore would be eviscerated by flooding as a result of a ten-foot rise in sea level, which is predicted if the Thwaites Glacier collapses into the ocean.

“We have mapped out weaker and stronger areas of the ice shelf and suggest a ‘zig-zag’ pathway the fractures might take through the ice, ultimately leading to break up of the shelf in as little as 5 years, which result in more ice flowing off the continent,” it concludes.

With coastal areas already facing increased flood risk from high tide flooding and extreme rainfall events, Climate Central predicted that a number of American pro sports venues could be vulnerable to rising waters, including Citi Field in New York (home of the Mets) and MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (where the NFL’s Giants and Jets play).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change and it has been warning leaders to take action, but the political systems of the world have utterly failed to heed predictions about the dire consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels.

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