One thing that’s hard to grasp about the climate crisis is that big changes can happen fast. In 2019, I was aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer, a 308-foot-long scientific research vessel, cruising in front of the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. One day, we were sailing in clear seas in front of the glacier. The next day, we were surrounded by icebergs the size of aircraft carriers.
As we later learned from satellite images, in a matter of 48 hours or so, a mélange of ice about 21 miles wide and 15 miles deep had cracked up and scattered into the sea.
It was a spooky moment. Thwaites Glacier is the size of Florida. It is the cork in the bottle of the entire West Antarctic ice sheet, which contains enough ice to raise sea levels by 10 feet. The mélange that disintegrated was not part of the glacier itself, but a mix of icebergs and sea ice that had cozied up next to it. Still, the idea that it could just fall apart overnight was mind-blowing.
As it turns out, the ice breakup I witnessed was not a freak event. A few weeks ago, scientists participating in the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, a $25 million five-year-long joint research program between the National Science Foundation in the U.S. and the Natural Environment Research Council in the U.K., presented their latest research. They described the discovery of cracks and fissures in the Thwaites eastern ice shelf, predicting that the ice shelf could fracture like a shattered car window in as little as five years. “It won’t scatter out into sea as quickly as what you saw when you were down there,” Erin Pettit, a glaciologist at Oregon State University and one of the lead principal investigators in the ITGC, later told me. “But the basic process is the same. The ice shelf is breaking up and could be gone in less than a decade.” [Continue reading…]