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December 9, 2022

West Antarctic glacier beats a hasty retreat, alarming scientists

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3D rendered view of seafloor, coloured by depth just in front of Thwaites Ice Shelf. Image Alastair Graham/University of South Florida

Brought to you by Cosmos Magazine and The Echo

New seafloor imaging shows Thwaites Glacier has experienced blistering bursts of retreat

As global temperatures increase, glaciers melt and sea levels rise. The large Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica — which alone contains enough water to raise the sea level between one and three metres — is already retreating rapidly.

A new study has released unique imaging of the seafloor at the front of the glacier which indicates that Thwaites Glacier has in the past experienced ‘pulses’ of even faster moving retreat than it is experiencing at the moment.

Rán, a Kongsberg HUGIN autonomous underwater vehicle, amongst sea ice in front of Thwaites Glacier, after a 20-hour mission mapping the seafloor. Photo Anna Wåhlin/University of Gothenburg

In 2019, using a specialised instruments aboard a robotic vehicle known as ‘Rán’, a team consisting of scientists from the US, UK and Sweden took high-resolution images of a large portion of the seafloor 700 m below the surface in front of the Thwaites Glacier, a critical area for understanding the motion of glaciers.

The 20-hour mission was the first time scientists have been able to access a glacier front in this way. “This pioneering study of the ocean floor has been made possible by recent technological advances in autonomous ocean mapping,” said Anna Wåhlin, a physical oceanographer from the University of Gothenburg who deployed Rán at Thwaites, and has delivered some surprising results.

What they found was a record of the glacier’s movements carved like fingernail scratches along the seabed.

The seafloor images show 160 parallel ridges created as the glacier’s leading edge retreated and rose and fell with the daily tides. By factoring in models of the tidal cycle, scientists were able to show that one of these ridges formed every single day, and that at some stage in the last two centuries, the glacier retreated at a rate of over 2.1 km per year – twice the current rate of retreat.

The R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer at Thwaites Glacier ice front, 2019. Photo Alexandra Mazur/University of Gothenburg

This was sparked by the front of the glacier losing contact with a seabed ridge, resulting in the extreme rate of retreat – something that scientists speculate could easily occur in current times.

“Thwaites is really holding on today by its fingernails, and we should expect to see big changes over small timescales in the future — even from one year to the next — once the glacier retreats beyond a shallow ridge in its bed,” said marine geophysicist and study co-author Robert Larter from the British Antarctic Survey.

Read more: Take a close look underneath Thwaites Glacier

This expedition is the first of five which make up the THwaites Offshore Research (THOR) project which aims to expand understanding of the glacier, in terms of how it responds to atmospheric and oceanic changes, and also its stability – both of which will be crucial for modelling of sea levels in climate change analysis.


This article was originally published on Cosmos Magazine and was written by Clare Kenyon. Clare Kenyon is a science journalist for Cosmos. An ex-high school teacher, she is currently wrangling the death throes of her PhD in astrophysics, has a Masters in astronomy and another in education. Clare also has diplomas in music and criminology and a graduate certificate of leadership and learning.

Published by The Echo in conjunction with Cosmos Magazine.


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20 COMMENTS

  1. In the 1800s we were just coming out of a 500 year mini ice age. The planet warmed really fast. Humans across the globe wrote down the dramatic effects of that cold period and the warming period. Yet the official temperature data and climate models don’t fit these highly documented real life events, nor explain how any of it happened. So it must be nature that is incorrect, because it can’t be the holy climate ‘science’ that’s flat wrong.

    Mean while the Antarctic ice sheet continues to get thicker, and every satellite confirms it.

    • I’m oft linguistically obtuse. The truth lays in the concepts. If you are genuinely inquiring, please ask one or more direct questions. I’m more than happy to explain….usually verbosely.

    • But if their results show that global temperature had decrease since 2007, they obviously made a mistake…..Right? That’s what happened with the Climate Reference Network. Go learn what the CRN is, download the raw data and process it yourself. You don’t have to go to the extreme of using the hourly like we did, the daily data shows the same climate trend. When they got the same result with satellite data they ‘knew’ it was incorrect and corrected it. That’s how faith works.

  2. As I understand it from reading many scientific reports, the glacier is grounded on this ocean floor ridge and is like a boot stuck in mud, holding back the forward motion of the glacier. Once the front of the glacier melts back further two things happen. One is that the glacier is no longer grounded and can now flow to the ocean unimpeded by friction on the sea floor behind that ridge. Two, the relatively warmer ocean water can now access the underside of the glacier as it is no longer blocked by the rock ridge and melt the ice from underneath as well as the leading edge.
    I trust the scientists and the latest technology which makes a lot of sense rather than the sceptics who say it is a natural cycle but are very thin on science to back it up.

    • The ridges can be interpreted to mean several different things. Unless you see one being made, you can’t tell which theory is correct. If you want funding for it though, you go with an alarmist bent.

  3. Our climate denying scribblers didn’t take long to come out and play.

    They still dealing with their trauma after reading the previous Echo article regarding The Antarctic – ” On the brink: studies showing Antarctica’s climate risks” – By Cosmos Magazine August 19, 2022

    But we should all rest easy, wannabe scientist [Word deleted by comments editor] Christian tells us climate science is wrong and the Anton keeps banging away about climate alarmism and climate cult.
    Thank you gentlemen so much, that you have our / Mother Earth’s back.

    • Me and my family are still unvaccinated and none of us have gotten sick. Just saying.
      If you truly want to understand where our ‘insanity’ comes from, try the conspiracy video bellow, it will give you ideas on how to argue against us.

      Youtube ‘veritasium chaos’

        • Well a ‘piste’ is a dirt road. I live on a dirt road and own about 6kms of private dirt road I get around on, so I’m pretty much always going somewhere on a piste.

          You on the other hand, do not address anyone’s points, and quite frankly, don’t seem to understand them. Then you resort to ad hominem attacks. Don’t expect any respect.

          If you can’t understand that education video, maybe there are books for children explaining Chaos Theory and how it relates to this subject. I’m quite happy to help people understand the extra information I bring to articles, but you need to be willing to learn. What you think after that is out of my control. I simply try to bring balance and help people with their logic skills.

          • I feel sorry for you Christian.
            It not hard to grasp the issue being raised but you modus operandi is to make stuff up and bring FUD.
            And when you get called out, each time divert and distract, we get that logic of yours.

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