Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier Is Melting at Only Half the Peak Rate of the Past 200 Years

Barbara Rush’s honest acknowledgement that the scientific evidence suggests slower glacial melting than the popular doomsday predictions claim, is especially powerful and credible coming from the author of an earlier book praised by environmentalists for its sensitive portrayal of the harms of rising sea levels.

(p. 7) If Antarctica is going to lose a lot of ice this century, it will likely come from Thwaites. If it disintegrated, it would be responsible for over two feet of sea level rise, and its collapse could destabilize the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet, causing global sea levels to jump 10 feet or more. In terms of the fate of our coastal communities, this particular glacier is the biggest wild card, the largest known unknown, the pile of coins that could tip the scales one way or another. Will Miami even exist in 100 years? Thwaites will decide.

At least that is what many scientists think, which is why Rolling Stone called Thwaites the “doomsday glacier” in 2017. But many of our predictions about just how much ice will enter the ocean from Thwaites and just how quickly this will occur are just that: predictions. That’s because before our mission, we had next to no observational data from this part of the planet, very few bits of raw information on which to base models.

When I read about the collapse of Antarctica’s great glaciers, I feel I am being encouraged to jump to a conclusion: that no matter what we do now, what lies ahead is bound to be worse than what came before.

This kind of thinking not only undermines our ability to imagine a climate-changed world that is more equitable than the one we currently live in; it also turns Antarctica into a passive symbol of the coming apocalypse.

. . .

This week Nature Geoscience published a paper analyzing the data from that submarine. The authors, many of whom were on board the vessel with me, suggest that sometime over the past couple hundred years, Thwaites retreated at two to three times the rate we see today. Put another way: At the cold nadir of the planet, one of the world’s largest glaciers is stepping farther outside the script we imagined for it, likely defying even our most detailed projections of what is to come.

For the full story, see:

Elizabeth Rush. “What Antarctica’s Disintegration Asks of Us.” The New York Times, SundayOpinion Section (Sunday, September 11, 2022): 7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 8, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

The academic article published in Nature Geoscience, and mentioned above, is:

Graham, Alastair G. C., Anna Wåhlin, Kelly A. Hogan, Frank O. Nitsche, Karen J. Heywood, Rebecca L. Totten, James A. Smith, Claus-Dieter Hillenbrand, Lauren M. Simkins, John B. Anderson, Julia S. Wellner, and Robert D. Larter. “Rapid Retreat of Thwaites Glacier in the Pre-Satellite Era.” Nature Geoscience (Sept. 5, 2022), DOI: 10.1038/s41561-022-01019-9.

Rush’s book mentioned above is:

Rush, Elizabeth. Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2018.

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