NASA has made a "disturbing discovery" while surveying the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica: a massive 1,000-foot (300-meter) tall cavern that's roughly two-thirds the size of Manhattan. Scientists have long thought the glacier was not connected to the bedrock below, and they had expected to find some gaps along the base of the ice. "As more heat and water get under the glacier, it melts faster", said Pietro Milillo of JPL.
"We have for years suspected that Thwaites is not firmly connected to the substrate", says Co-author Eric Rignot.
"Thanks to a new generation of satellites, we can finally see the detail". It is now responsible for approximately 4 percent of global sea level rise and holds enough ice to raise the world ocean a little over 2 feet.
Thwaites has been described as one of the world's most risky glaciers because its demise could lead to rapid changes in global sea levels.
The researchers say the Florida-sized cavity under the glacier highlights the need for more detailed observations of Antarctic glaciers to better understand just how fast sea levels will rise as a result of climate change, according to a press release. "We are discovering different mechanisms of retreat". This summer, the U.S. National Science Foundation and the British Natural Environmental Research Council are launching the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, a five-year field project that aims to get to the bottom of the glacier's processes and features.
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In the case of the recently discovered cavity, it was found on the western side under the main trunk of the glacier.
Scientists used a combination of ice-penetrating radar flown on NASA planes and European satellite data to capture what's going on.
In this region, as the tide rises and falls, the grounding line retreats and advances across a zone of about 3 km to 5 km.
Since 1992, it has been slowly becoming unstuck from the bedrock at a rate of 0.4 miles to 0.5 miles a year, and the melt rate is considered extremely high.
Scientists were also able to chart the rate of retreat and ice loss, finding a "complex pattern", where some sectors retreated faster with more melting than others. Hopefully, the upcoming worldwide collaboration will help researchers piece together the different systems at work under and around the glacier, the researchers said.