Antarctica’s Doomsday Glacier: how Doomed are We?

Two brand-new papers market radically various predictions the the glacier’s future — and also thus because that the future the low-lying cities approximately the world. Here’s exactly how to understand the divergent projections


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I came challenge to challenge with the Doomsday Glacier (a.k.a. Thwaites glacier) in 2019, on a pilgrimage to Antarctica board the Nathaniel B. Palmer, a 308-foot-long icebreaker operated by the nationwide Science Foundation. Ns had called the Florida-sized slab of ice cream its nickname in an short article I’d written a few years earlier, and the name stuck. Nevertheless, ns was unprepared for just how spooky it would be to actually challenge the 100-foot-tall wall surface of ice from the deck that a ship. Locked up here in the West Antarctic ice cream sheet was enough water come raise worldwide sea levels almost 10 feet. As I composed in a dispatch native Antarctica top top the day us encountered Thwaites, it was both terrifying and thrilling to understand that ours future is written in this craggy, luminous continent that ice.

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Our civilization is heating up fast. And also as every kid knows, on hot days, ice melts. The inquiry is exactly how quickly. At Thwaites, the melt is largely a an outcome of warmth ocean water attacking it native below, which is stressing and also fracturing both the ice cream shelf the protects the glacier and the glacier itself. Just how quick Thwaites and the other large glaciers that comprise the West Antarctic ice sheet will all fall apart is just one of the most crucial scientific inquiries of our time. And also it is a question upon i beg your pardon the future of practically every seaside city in the civilization depends. “We understand there room tipping points in Antarctic ice cream sheets, and we also know the Antarctica is the greatest wildcard in the future sea level increase projections,” says Andrea Dutton, a professor the geology at the university of Wisconsin-Madison and a 2019 MacArthur Fellow. “Basically, it all comes down to ‘when will we reach the tipping point?’ ”


Last week, two brand-new papers were released simultaneously in the scientific research journal Nature that sell radically different visions the the Doomsday glacier, and radically various visions of exactly how climate models work and what they can tell us around the future. However they agree on one thing: “Both papers make it very clear that person decisions space important, and that limiting warming deserve to limit sea level rise,” says Richard Alley, a glaciologist at pen State and one the the many respected ice researchers in the world. But beyond that, the two files may as well be relenten life on various planets.

The first record might be dubbed the divine Shit vision the Antarctica’s future. In this scenario, led by plunder DeConto, a climate modeler at the college of Massachusetts-Amherst (Dutton and also Alley and 10 other scientists room co-authors), the West Antarctic ice sheet remains relatively stable as long as warming stays below 2 C, which is the temperature threshold established in the Paris climate agreement. Beyond 2 C, however, every hell breaks loose. Thwaites starts to autumn into the sea like a heat of dominoes moved off a table and also soon take away the remainder of the West Antarctic ice cream sheet v it. And once the fallen begins, it will certainly be impossible to stop – at least on any type of human time scale. In a century or so, worldwide sea levels might rise 10 feet, which would certainly swamp lot of southern Florida and Bangladesh and also many other low-lying areas of the world.

In fact, it might happen also faster than that, claims Alley: “We just don’t recognize what the upper boundary is for how fast this have the right to happen. We space dealing with an occasion that no human being has ever before witnessed before. We have no analogue because that this.” all in all, the file makes a very solid argument the cutting emissions today may avert a centuries-long climate catastrophe. DeConto’s file also warns versus betting top top a fast techno-fix like CO2 removal. Unless it is extensively deployed by 2070, which, the means things room going, is very unlikely offered the cost and also scale-up that the technology that is required, it will certainly be as well late.


The second file might be referred to as the What, Me Worry? vision the Antarctica’s future. Unequal the DeConto study, i beg your pardon is based upon a single model, the second paper, which to be led through Tamsin Edwards, a climate scientist in ~ King’s college London, involved 84 civilization working in ~ 62 institutes in 15 countries. Edwards and also her co-authors use an “emulation” method to compare the outcome of the different climate models, make the results much less dependent on presumptions built into any kind of one scenario, producing what amounts to a statistical average of climate-model outcomes.

In this study, the Doomsday glacier isn’t an extremely doom-y at all. There’s no collapse, no tipping point, no large jumps in sea level rise. In fact, although the file makes clear the the price of CO2 emissions over the next few decades is plainly important, the distinction in global sea level rise from the melt of all soil glaciers, not just Thwaites, only differs by 4 ½ inches in between a 1.5 C global temperature rise and a 3 C temperature climb (which is a small above where we space headed with current commitments under the Paris agreement). And much the that originates from increased melt in Greenland and mountain glaciers.

As for Antarctica, the record says explicitly: “No clear dependence on emissions script emerges because that Antarctica.” Or as Alley placed it come me, a tone of mild astonishment in his voice: “For Antarctica, the Edwards paper basically says, Antarctica doesn’t matter to us and our decisions don’t issue to Antarctica.”

So let me around sum up wherein we space with our scientific understanding of sea level rise risk indigenous Antarctica after much more than three decades of severe climate adjust research: One study tells us that if us don’t cut CO2 emissions quick we will condemn the world to a century of climbing seas that will flood every major seaside city and reshape the an international map. The other study tells us that the most likely difference in between dramatically cut CO2 emissions and also cruising along on the present path is 4 ½ inches of water. That method more seaside flooding, an ext erosion, more salt-water intrusion into drinking wells, but it’s a long method from Waterworld.

What to make of all this? Well, for one thing, the discrepancy between the papers demonstrates not just how little scientists yes, really understand around what is walk on in Antarctica, but also what a low priority our culture has placed on funding research to better understand it. For another, modeling ice sheets is just plain hard, in part because it calls for high-resolution models, and in part because a lot of the crucial events in the story that ice taken place 20,000 years earlier (or more), for which data is sparse.


Finally, over there is a big difference in perspective in between the 2 studies: The Edwards file only looks in ~ sea level increase out to 2100, whereas the DeConto document stretches out to 2300. Even in the DeConto paper, Antarctica doesn’t really start to fall apart until 2120 or so. Together always, what friend see relies on the lens friend look through. There’s likewise the inquiry of how additional snowfall native a warmer setting may offset some or every one of the melt from warmer ocean water. (Warmer wait holds more moisture, and thus can an outcome in more snow.) as Edwards speak me via email, “We are not yet sure just how much we have control over Antarctica, since snowfall has a counteracting impact that may also increase in future.”

The most necessary distinction, however, is the the DeConto document includes a mechanism referred to as Marine ice Cliff Instability, or MICI (scientists express it “Mickey,” favor the mouse) and also the Edwards paper doesn’t.

MICI is ideal understood as a hypothesis around how ice cream sheets law in a quickly warming world. The gist of the is that, in part conditions, ice sheets don’t just melt — they collapse. Warmth ocean water can get beneath the glaciers, bring about them come fracture and also destabilize. When the ice shelves that store the glaciers wedged in ar break up, the glaciers themselves come to be vulnerable. Follow to the MICI hypothesis, ice cliffs above around 100 meters high or for this reason don’t have the structure integrity to stand on their own, and also without ice cream shelves to buttress them, they will certainly collapse, or calve, right into the sea (there’s a an ext detailed explanation of MICI in my 2017 short article on the Doomsday Glacier).

This is an ext or much less what’s keep going right now at a few glaciers in Greenland, including Jakobshaven, the fastest flow glacier in the world. A couple of years ago, i flew throughout the front of Jakobshaven in a helicopter and also watched large chunks of ice cream calve into the water, producing an military of icebergs the float out into Glacier Bay, where climate-catastrophe tourists take photos of them and post lock to your Instagram accounts.

The calving front in ~ Thwaites is around 10 time bigger than Jakobshaven. If Thwaites’ ice cream shelf breaks up and starts behaving favor Jakobshaven, a entirety lotta real estate is gonna acquire wet real fast.


MICI may be a radical idea, however it is not new. It has been roughly since at least the 1960s, when climate scientist man Mercer first traveled to Antarctica and also realized that the land in ~ the ice in West Antarctica was shaped prefer a bowl, which method that if warm water obtained under the ice and also began to destabilize the glacier, the could trigger a runaway retreat that can dump a lot of ice right into the southern Ocean an extremely quickly. Richard Alley take it up the idea in the early 2000s, expertise it can be a mechanism to explain why sea levels to be so high during the Pliocene era, 3 million years ago, once levels the CO2 in the atmosphere were about the exact same as they are today. In 2016, DeConto co-authored a record with Dave Pollard, a climate modeler at penn State, the modeled the implications of MICI in Antarctica for the first time. The record added an ext than three feet to sea level climb projections and also scared the bejesus out of climate researchers everywhere.

The MICI hypothesis likewise prompted the development of the global Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, a five year-long, $50 million joint research study effort in between the U.S. And also the U.K., which began in 2018 (my pilgrimage to Thwaites in 2019 was with scientists participating in this joint research study venture). Among the an essential questions researchers are asking: just how much warmth water is getting under Thwaites ice cream shelf? (Quite a bit, according to a new document by swedish oceanographer Anna Wåhlin, which is based upon measurements she make while we were in Antarctica together.) How quickly is the glacier losing its tight on the bedrock near the existing ice front? How conveniently is the ice shelf breaking up?

“In the last couple of years, we have actually seen a the majority of dynamic change at Thwaites and also other glaciers in the region,” claims Robert Larter, a geophysicist through the brothers Antarctic Survey who was the chef scientist on the Palmer ~ above my expedition to Antarctica. According to one current study, the net ice-mass loss from Thwaites and nearby glaciers is now an ext than 6 times what it was 30 year ago, i beg your pardon Larter calls “mind-boggling.”

None of this research is conclusive, and also most of the is tho too brand-new in encompass in climate models. For the moment, MICI stays an outlier idea, one the mainstream climate modelers have actually yet to fully embrace, in spite of the risks that people faces native it.

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“If you desire to be generous,” Alley speak me, “You can say the climate modelers really want to do their models carefully, make sure they room calibrated precisely, and they don’t know what to carry out with MICI.”

It’s also true the there room still a many unanswered questions around exactly how MICI works. “Yes, ice cream cliffs deserve to fail,” claims Ted Scambos, the command U.S. Glaciologist in the Thwaites research study project. “But is a runaway fail realistic?” and also just since ice cliff please is happening in ~ Jakobshaven, it doesn’t median it will certainly necessarily take place at Thwaites. “Jakobshaven is no physically the exact same as all Antarctic glaciers, nor does their model incorporate all possible physics (e.g. An adverse feedbacks or other determinants that border the rate and also extent that cliff collapse),” Edwards tells me via email. “It’s much too straightforward to say, ‘Clearly MICI exists so why don’t you think in it?’ ”

“The reason nobody is rushing turn off an unstable naval cliff looking for what DeConto and Pollard have actually done is due to the fact that nobody thinks there is any an excellent reason to single out MICI and make that the reason of instability in glaciers,” claims Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler and director the the NASA Goddard institute for an are Studies in brand-new York. “Is MICI a huge part the why glaciers calve? It’s no inconceivable, but it’s also not inconceivable that it could be various other factors.”

Finally, few of the resistance come MICI might simply be a fail of imagination. No human being has ever before witnessed the rapid collapse of a glacier in Antarctica like Thwaites; ergo, that can’t happen. Alley himself thinks about it merely in regards to risk. “Maybe we’ll gain lucky and also the ice cream cliffs won’t disintegrate in Antarctica fairly as quick as us predict,” that says. “But if friend are even a small bit worried that scientists might have made mistakes in your calculations about what is walking on in Antarctica, then probably we must pay attention to this.” the compares Thwaites and other glaciers in West Antarctica through drunk drivers. “They are out there, they room scary, and also they don’t behave as you suppose them to,” Alley says. “That’s why it’s a great idea to have actually a seatbelt in her cars.”


In the end, climate modelers are a small like sci-fi writers. They use facts and also physics come spin out possible futures. DeConto’s record imagines we space moving right into a new world that will behave really differently indigenous the world we have actually lived in so far. Edwards’ file imagines that the remainder of the 21st century will certainly look pretty much like the does today, just hotter, and with a little less ice. Both visions space based in science. Both visions room plausible. And both visions room fraught with deep uncertainty about where we room going.