Scientists believe that the hope that the current processes can be reversed has not yet been lost.
John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi horror film The Thing, based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novel Who Goes There, is set in Antarctica, one of the few remaining untouched areas on Earth’s surface. There, a group of researchers encounters a parasite that threatens the survival of not only the group, but all life on the planet. The creature takes the form of dogs or humans, anything living, transforming them into horrible monsters with mouths in their stomachs and bent tentacles everywhere. Once they understand what’s going on, the team of this Antarctic expedition is the only one standing between the rest of the world and doomsday.
Despite what you may have seen on the news lately, there is no conclusive evidence that such beings walk the earth, even the coldest parts of it. But recent research has more clearly identified a very real deadly threat at Antarctica’s Thwaites Ice Shelf .
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Thwaites is one of the largest ice shelves in the world and a significant portion of it is supported by land, keeping it partly above water. Generally speaking, it is beneficial for us that the ice in the world remains where it is. Because melting ice in the oceans can drastically change the salinity of the water, affecting ecosystems across the planet. And chunks of ice falling from land into the water contribute to sea level rise by shifting or melting and adding even more water to the mixture. Unfortunately, Thwaites has refused to follow our wishes and is melting fast. If Thwaites were to completely melt or break off the ground and sink into the sea, it would raise global sea levels by more than 0.5 meters, earning it the nickname Doomsday Glacier.
Scientists have been aiming to get a better look under Thwaites for some time now, in hopes of better understanding what drives its decline. They recently got their chance thanks to a 4m cylindrical robot named Aisfin. To get under the shelf, the researchers used hot water to cut a narrow hole 587 meters through the ice and into the cold waters below.
Once in the water, Icefin noticed that normal melting at the ice-ocean interface was not the main cause of the ice shelf’s degradation. In fact, the smooth parts of the underside of the shelf appear to have melted more slowly than scientists expected, which is certainly good news. But where the ice cracked, things were much worse. The cracks in the ice become larger, which eventually collapse and break away from the rest of the shelf, and this is what causes most of the losses in the places where they are most visible. If Aisfin’s observations point to Thwaites’ future, then perhaps he is destined to crumble rather than shrink and disappear.
Slow melting is good, but rapid destruction is bad, especially in terms of sea level rise. Cracks in or near land push more ice into the water, causing sea levels to rise, even if the ice doesn’t melt. If you’ve ever thrown too many ice cubes into an almost full glass, then you’ve seen firsthand the mess that too much ice can create in your water.
Even more disturbing is the fact that these sightings were made in the eastern part of Thwaites, which is still stable enough to land on. However, the bulk of the shelf is collapsing even faster and is too unstable to be safely landed on. Almost certainly, if we could get under this part of the shelf, the processes of destruction would be much more terrible.
If Thwaites’ trajectory is not changed, we will have to deal with a huge spill on all the figurative tabletops of the world, and there will be no obvious way to undo it. This means that the time to act is now, not later. Although the Doomsday Glacier is melting faster than we would like, its complete destruction will not happen within centuries, and should not happen at all. The situation in Thwaites and the possible global implications are not ideal, but we already knew that. What has changed now is that we have better tools to understand what is causing the decay so that we can plan to slow it down or stop it.