NASA Reports Giant Hole Beneath Thwaites Glacier

Mindy Sparks
February 5, 2019

The hole, which is nearly 1,000 feet tall, was seen during the space agency's study of the disintegrating Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, NASA said Wednesday.

An enormous cavity has been discovered at the base of the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. That cavity is big enough to hold 14 billion tons of ice or 5.6 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. The entire Thwaites glacier is as big as Florida, and now 4 percent of the sea level rise.

Researchers expected to find some holes between ice and bedrock at Thwaites' bottom, however, the size and "explosive growth rate" of the cavity shocked them.

Worse, Thwaites Glacier acts as a kind of "door stop", preventing adjoining glaciers from sliding towards the sea.

"We have suspected for years that Thwaites was not tightly attached to the bedrock beneath it", study author Rignot said in a NASA statement.

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


These very high-resolution data can be processed by a technique called radar interferometry to reveal how the ground surface below has moved between images. But, in the course of just three years, it has melted and flowed into the Southern Ocean. The discoveries feature the requirement for point by point perceptions of Antarctic glaciers' undersides in figuring how fast global sea levels will ascend because of environmental change.

This would inundate coastal cities like NY, which could probably cope with the changes if they were gradual but would be seriously and potentially mortally damaged if sea levels rose too quickly for engineers to mount a response. Previous numerical models for the melting of the glacier used a fixed shape to represent a cavity under the ice and didn't allow for the cavity to change shape or grow.

The gaping mouth is located at the base of the Thwaites Glaciers, which is considered by many to be one of the most risky in the world due to its massive size.

"We are discovering different mechanisms of retreat", first author of the new paper, JPL radar scientist Pietro Milillo explains.

Although Thwaites Glacier is one of the hardest places on Earth to reach, more of its secrets will soon be revealed. However, the size of the cavity came as a big surprise-it was about 2.5 miles wide, six miles long and 1,000 feet tall. The melting of this glacier could lead to as much as 10 feet of sea level rise over the next century or so.

These results highlighted that ice-ocean interactions were more complex than previously understood.

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