Toenails stuck to Thwaites Glacier appear to be peeling off.

On a research cruise in Antarctica, WHO postdoctoral scientist Peter Kimball helped use the Jaguar robotic car to map the underside of the ice. But the trip was memorable for more than just their success in a harsh environment. We were stuck in heavy snowpacks for about two weeks, Kimball recalls. We could see no open water around the ship, and the ice was too thick for the ship to break through. While we were stuck, this wonderful minke whale had breached a few centimeters of ice in a tiny lead and had been snoring at the vent, near our ship, for a whole day.

The Thwaites Ice Front in the vulnerable West Antarctic strip is very wide (70 miles wide where it meets the ocean) and in its entirety is the size of Florida. The glacier is the most feared as it is rapidly decomposing and threatening coastal cities around the world. The cork in the bottle for the entirety of West Antarctica holds ten feet from sea level. The collapse of the marine expanse will not cause the sea level to rise because it is already floating. When it breaks down, the cork breaks, and land ice moves freely in the Weddel Sea and Amundsen Sea, raising sea levels.

All of the damage to Thwaites’ stability takes place under the ice. The upwelling of warm ocean waters softens and erodes the glacier’s soft white bottom layer. The water flow also lifts the ice, as warmer water can flow into the ridge and out of the grounding line, further dissolving the ice with a faster flow, more fragmentation and cracking with the risk of avalanche. Water can do this because the ice is no longer anchored to the bedrock.

The ocean at the front of the glacier is still very cold, around 34-36 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s above freezing, and if you think of an ice-laden afternoon cocktail, it’s similar to the temperature of ocean water gobbling up a glacier. As you sip on your cocktail, you’ll notice the ice melting, which is exactly what’s happening to the underside of the massive marine expanse of Thwaites Glacier. The glacier carries by itself a 2-foot rise in sea level.

Geophysicists have been able to map the bottom of the icy sea. Like you and me, we have a history, and so does Thwaites.

3D rendering of multi-beam bathymetry (seafloor profile) colored by depth, collected by Rán across a seafloor ridge, just in front of the Thwaites Ice Shelf.
3D rendering of multibeam bathymetry (seafloor profile) colored by depth, collected by Rán across a seafloor ridge in front of the Thwaites Ice Shelf.

A recent study by the University of South Florida:

At some point in the past 200 years, over a period of less than six months, the glacier front lost contact with the edge of the seafloor and retreated at a rate of more than 2.1 kilometers per year (1.3 miles per year) – double the rate documented using satellites between 2011 and 2019. .

“Our results suggest pulses of very rapid retreat have occurred in the Thwaites Glacier in the past two centuries, and possibly as recently as the mid-20th century,” Graham said.

“Thwaites is really sticking to her nails today,” said the marine geophysicist, “and we should expect to see big changes on small time scales in the future — even from year to year — once the glacier retreats beyond a shallow edge in its bed.” and study co-author Robert Larter of the British Antarctic Survey.

Thwaites’ tongue is fifty miles wide. You can distinguish the tongue depending on its firmness and whether it is held on an edge. While in danger, the western part of the tongue remains relatively stable. The eastern part sheds chunks of ice like there is no tomorrow, and the eastern side also contains the majority of the ground ice. Sooner rather than later due to the mess, in my estimation.

For twenty-two years, a large iceberg named Iceberg B22a broke off from the tongue of Thwaites in 2001 and became stuck to its tip, shielding the remaining ice from the open ocean. The iceberg was fifty-three miles long and forty miles wide. It also gets under warming waters, and the burgh weakens enough that it’s freed from the mountain it was stuck on in September of 2022. That means a brutal attack on Thwaites from the ocean. A fleet of icebergs is expected to be generated from the front after the iceberg exits the Amundsen Sea and enters the Weddel. If you didn’t know, West Antarctica passed the tipping point many years ago.

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