Scientists Have Detected an Enormous Cavity Growing Beneath Antarctica

017 thwaites glacer

Thwaites Glacier

An enormous cavity has been discovered at the base of the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica.

A study led by the agency revealed a cavity about two-thirds the area of Manhattan and roughly 304 metres tall is growing under Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. It's big enough to contain 14 billion tons of ice, most of which has melted over the last three years.

The Thwaites Glacier, which is about the size of Florida, has been responsible for about 4% of the rise in sea levels so far, still holds enough ice to raise the world ocean a little over 2 feet upon melting.

Thwaites glacier in western Antarctica. But even they found the immensity and speed of the void's growth surprising.

The pocket is a sign of "rapid decay" and just one of "several disturbing discoveries" made recently regarding the glacier, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a news release Wednesday.

"Thanks to a new generation of satellites, we can finally see the detail".

"(The size of) a cavity under a glacier plays an important role in melting", said lead author Pietro Milillo of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

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And if all the ice in neighboring glaciers were to melt, it would raise global sea levels by approximately eight feet (2.4 meters), which would spell disaster for the majority of the world's coastal populations, accounting for upwards of 80 percent of the entire human population. They used NASA's ice-penetrating radar to get their data. The collaboration includes the U.S. National Science Foundation and British National Environmental Research Council.

Thwaites Glacier, curiously, isn't melting in a uniform way.

Different processes at various parts of the 160-kilometer-long front of the glacier are putting the rates of grounding line retreat and of ice loss out of sync, NASA said.

From 1992 to 2011, the centre of the Thwaites grounding line retreated by almost 14 kilometres. The glacier has retreated at a steady rate of about 0.4 to 0.5 miles (0.6 to 0.8 km) annually since 1992, the researchers found.

Meanwhile, "on the eastern side of the glacier, the grounding-line retreat proceeds through small channels, maybe a kilometer [0.6 miles] wide, like fingers reaching beneath the glacier to melt it from below", Milillo said.

Researchers hope these new findings will help other scientists better understand the connection between the weather and glaciers. This data also shed some light on another concern about the glacier's grounding line, the point at which the glacier starts to depart from land and float on the sea.

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