Gigantic cavity in Antarctic glacier signals rapid decay | #95923

Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica

The cavity has an area two-thirds the size of Manhattan - and NASA researchers described the find as "disturbing".

However, the researchers say that the size and growth rate of the hole surprised them. They found a cavity 1,000-feet tall that was "big enough to have contained 14 billion tons of ice-and most of that ice melted over the last three years". That cavern is likely filled with air much warmer than the surrounding ice, triggering faster melting of the glacier than would happen otherwise.

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.

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

Scientists spotted the concealed void thanks to a new generation of satellites, Rignot noted.

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To put it into a sobering context, the entire glacier "holds enough ice to raise the world ocean a little over two feet (65 centimeters)".

The Thwaites glacier, about the size of the US state of Florida, and now account for about four percent of the global sea-level rise is responsible.

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

The newly discovered cavity sits on the western side of the glacier, where the melt rate was found to be fastest.

The study was published online yesterday (Jan. 30) in the journal Science Advances.

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Crevasses are seen in the Thwaites glacier on October 16, 2012.

A NASA-led team studied the glacier using satellites and specialized planes armed with ice-penetrating radar to provide researchers with high-resolution data about the glacier's ever-changing shape and size. "The withdrawal of the basic line is one of many small water channels", says Milillo.

Many Antarctic glaciers extend for miles beyond their grounding lines, floating out over the open ocean. The fastest retreat of floating ice is about a half mile a year with various areas thinning at up to 650 feet per year.

While researchers are still learning new things about the complex ways ice melts at the Thwaite Glacier, at its most basic, the giant cavity represents a simple (if unfortunate) scientific actuality.

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