Thwaites glacier, a vast river of ice the size of Great Britain, holds enough frozen water that were it to collapse, the world’s oceans would rise by more than 60cm.Part of the West Antarctic ice sheet, it is one of the most unstable glaciers on the continent.Since the 1980s, Thwaites has lost 540bn tonnes of ice into the dark waters of the Amundsen Sea.This single glacier is responsible for 4% of global sea level rise.
The rate of Thwaites’s disintegration has alarmed scientists for good reason.In a handful of decades it could retreat to the point that collapse becomes inevitable and irreversible.That would lock us into a future sea level rise of far more than half a metre or so.The reason is simple:today, Thwaites is a brake on large inland glaciers.Lose Thwaites, and those it holds back will follow.Over centuries perhaps, they would add fully 2m to sea level rise.
Nearly 100 scientists and support staff recently arrived at Thwaites, a place as inhospitable as Earth can muster, for an urgent and ambitious field expedition.Among the British and American teams are scientists, engineers and technicians who have set up tents on Thwaites ice shelf, the slab of glacier that has slipped off the Antarctic bedrock on to the sea.
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