Antarctic monster melting from sea level rise – podcast

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(The Conversation) This episode of the Weekly Conversation podcast is about the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. Thwaites is among the largest glaciers on Earth and one of the single most important factors for future global sea level rise. We talk to three experts about what makes Thwaites unique, why it melts and the creative techniques scientists use to study it.

Thanks to climate change, ice is melting all over the world. Greenland, the Arctic, the Himalayas, and Antarctica are all experiencing the fastest melting in recorded history.

When the ice currently on land melts, it flows down and eventually reaches the ocean. If the ice melts faster than the ice feeding the glaciers, sea level rises.

Thwaites Glacier is one of many bodies of ice that are melting, but this huge Antarctic glacier is uniquely important when it comes to sea level rise. “We’re talking about an area the size of the island of Great Britain,” says Ted Schampos, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado in the US and principal investigator in the Office of Science Coordination of the Thwaites Glacier Consortium for International Cooperation.

If – or when – the entire Thwaites glacier melts, Scambus says, it would cause sea level to rise by about 0.6 metres. But the interior of Thwaites is surrounded by other massive ice sheets that cover West Antarctica. And since Thwaites sits in a giant, low-altitude basin, if it melts, the rest of the ice will flow into the basin and melt as well. Add all that ice and you get more than three meters of sea level rise.

What makes Thwaites a significant contributor to sea level rise is where it is located on the Antarctic continent. It’s kind of like a lollipop with the candy part being in a giant tub and the stick extending from the continent to the ocean. And that stick dissolves quickly.

Yixi Zheng is an oceanographer at the University of East Anglia in England who recently went to Antarctica to study how Thwaites is melting. Describe the scene in deep terms. “You can really see icebergs and glaciers melting. You can see water falling from the glaciers,” she tells us. “We got really emotional. They were pretty much crying.”

Paul Holland, an oceanographer and glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey, has been researching why the ice is melting, focusing on changes in winds that warm the waters to the Amundsen Sea near Thwaites. The question is, if we reverse the wind changes caused by greenhouse gases, what is the effect of that? What will happen to the ice cap? Will it grow again or will it take several centuries to stabilize and then possibly grow again? Thanks to his work and the work of researchers like Zheng and Scambos, scientists are beginning to find the answers.

Listen to the full episode to find out how Thwaites’ unique shape makes him so scary, what researchers know about why he’s now melting, and how seals are helping collect data on the glacier in places no human can go.

This episode was produced by Mend Mariwany, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. The executive producer was Gemma Ware. Our music is composed by Nita Sarl. The sound of seals snoring in this episode from Nick Roden and ice cubes from Idalize via Freesound.

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