In the farthest reaches of Antarctica, a nightmare scenario of crumbling ice – and rapidly rising seas – could spell disaster for a warming planet.
Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica is so remote that only 28 human beings have ever set foot on it.
Knut Christianson, a 33-year-old glaciologist at the University of Washington, has been there twice. A few years ago, Christianson and a team of seven scientists traveled more than 1,000 miles from McMurdo Station, the main research base in Antarctica, to spend six weeks on Thwaites, traversing along the flat, featureless prairie of snow and ice in six snowmobiles and two Tucker Sno-Cats. “You feel very alone out there,” Christianson says. He and his colleagues set up camp at a new spot every few days and drilled holes 300 feet or so into the ice. Then they dropped tubes of nitroglycerin dynamite into these holes and triggered a blast. Sensors tracked vibrations as they shot through the ice and ricocheted off the ground below. By measuring the shape and frequency of these vibrations, Christianson could see the lumps and ridges and even the texture of a crushed continent deeply buried beneath the ice.
The trouble with Thwaites, which is one of the largest glaciers on the planet, is that it’s also what scientists call “a threshold system.” That means instead of melting slowly like an ice cube on a summer day, it is more like a house of cards: It’s stable until it is pushed too far, then it collapses. When a chunk of ice the size of Pennsylvania falls apart, that’s a big problem. It won’t happen overnight, but if we don’t slow the warming of the planet, it could happen within decades. And its loss will destabilize the rest of the West Antarctic ice, and that will go too. Seas will rise about 10 feet in many parts of the world; in New York and Boston, because of the way gravity pushes water around the planet, the waters will rise even higher, as much as 13 feet. “West Antarctica could do to the coastlines of the world what Hurricane Sandy did in a few hours to New York City,” explains Richard Alley, a geologist at Penn State University and arguably the most respected ice scientist in the world. “Except when the water comes in, it doesn’t go away in a few hours – it stays.”