Rapid melting is eroding vulnerable cracks in Thwaites Glacier’s underbelly

Scientists have now explored a hard-to-reach ocean cavity under a crucial glacier in Antarctica

A photo of a researchers camp on Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier.

Researchers camping on Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier melted a hole through more than 500 meters of ice to investigate the narrow cavity of seawater that is melting what’s known as the glacier’s grounding zone, where the ice lifts off the seafloor and starts to float.

P. Davis/BAS

Antarctica’s most vulnerable climate hot spot is a remote and hostile place — a narrow sliver of seawater, beneath a slab of floating ice more than half a kilometer thick. Scientists have finally explored it, and uncovered something surprising.

“The melt rate is much weaker than we would have thought, given how warm the ocean is,” says Peter Davis, an oceanographer at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge who was part of the team that drilled a narrow hole into this nook and lowered instruments into it. The finding might seem like good news — but it isn’t, he says. “Despite those low melt rates, we’re still seeing rapid retreat” as the ice vanishes faster than it’s being replenished.

Davis and about 20 other scientists conducted this research at Thwaites Glacier, a massive conveyor belt of ice about 120 kilometers wide, which flows off the coastline of West Antarctica. Satellite measurements show that Thwaites is losing ice more quickly than at any time in the last few thousand years (SN: 6/9/22). It has accelerated its flow into the ocean by at least 30 percent since 2000, hemorrhaging over 1,000 cubic kilometers of ice — accounting for roughly half of the ice lost from all of Antarctica.

Much of the current ice loss is driven by warm, salty ocean currents that are destabilizing the glacier at its grounding zone — the crucial foothold, about 500 meters below sea level at the drilling location, where the ice lifts off its bed and floats (SN: 4/9/21).

Now, this first-ever look at the glacier’s underbelly near the grounding zone shows that the ocean is attacking it in previously unknown and troubling ways.

When the researchers sent a remote-operated vehicle, or ROV, down the borehole and into the water below, they found that much of the melting is concentrated in places where the glacier is already under mechanical stress — within massive cracks called basal crevasses. These openings slice up into the underside of the ice.

Even a small amount of melting at these weak spots could inflict a disproportionately large amount of structural damage on the glacier, the researchers report in two papers published February 15 in Nature.

These results are “a bit of a surprise,” says Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who was not part of the team. Thwaites and other glaciers are monitored mostly with satellites, which make it appear that thinning and melting happen uniformly under the ice.

As the world continues to warm due to human-caused climate change, the shrinking glacier itself has the potential to raise global sea level by 65 centimeters over a period of centuries. Its collapse would also destabilize the remainder of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, triggering an eventual three meters of global sea level rise.

With these new results, Scambos says, “we’re seeing in much more detail processes that will be important for modeling” how the glacier responds to future warming, and how quickly sea level will rise.

A cold, thin layer shields parts of Thwaites Glacier’s underside

Simply getting these observations “is kind of like a moon shot, or even a Mars shot,” Scambos says. Thwaites, like most of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, rests on a bed that is hundreds of meters below sea level. The floating front of the glacier, called an ice shelf, extends 15 kilometers out onto the ocean, creating a roof of ice that makes this spot almost entirely inaccessible to humans. “This might represent the pinnacle of exploration” in Antarctica, he says.

These new results stem from a $50 million effort — the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration — conducted by the United States’ National Science Foundation and United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council. The research team, one of eight funded by that collaboration, landed on the snowy, flat expanse of Thwaites in the final days of 2019.

The researchers used a hot water drill to melt a narrow hole, not much wider than a basketball, through more than 500 meters of ice. Below the ice sat a water column that was only 54 meters thick.

When Davis and his colleagues measured the temperature and salinity of that water, they found that most of it was about 2 degrees Celsius above freezing — potentially warm enough to melt 20 to 40 meters of ice per year. But the underside of the ice seems to be melting at a rate of only 5 meters per year, researchers report in one of the Nature papers. The team calculated the melt rate based on the water’s salinity, which reveals the ratio of seawater, which is salty, to glacial meltwater, which is fresh.

The reason for that slow melt quickly emerged: Just beneath the ice sat a layer of cold, buoyant water, only 2 meters thick, derived from melted ice. “There is pooling of much fresher water at the ice base,” says Davis, and this cold layer shields the ice from warmer water below. 

Those measurements provided a snapshot right at the borehole. Several days after the hole was opened, the researchers began a broader exploration of the unmapped ocean cavity under the ice.

Workers winched a skinny, yellow and black cylinder down the borehole. This ROV, called Icefin, was developed over the last seven years by a team of engineers led by Britney Schmidt, a glaciologist at Cornell University.

A photo of a yellow remote-operated vehicle being lowered down a borehole into the ice of the Thwaites Glacier.
A remote-operated vehicle called Icefin was lowered down a borehole, through more than 500 meters of ice, to measure ocean currents and ice melting rates under Thwaites Glacier.Icefin/ITGC/Schmidt

Schmidt and her team piloted the craft from a nearby tent, monitoring instruments while she steered the craft with gentle nudges to the buttons of a PlayStation 4 controller. The smooth, mirrorlike ceiling of ice scrolled silently past on a computer monitor — the live video feed piped up through 3½ kilometers of fiber-optic cable.

As Schmidt guided Icefin about 1.6 kilometers upstream from the borehole, the water column gradually tapered, until less than a meter of water separated the ice from the seafloor below. A few fish and shrimplike crustaceans called amphipods flitted among otherwise barren piles of gravel.

This new section of seafloor — revealed as the ice thins, lifts and floats progressively farther inland — had been exposed “for less than a year,” Schmidt says.

Now and then, Icefin skimmed past a dark, gaping cleft in the icy ceiling, a basal crevasse. Schmidt steered the craft into several of these gaps — often over 100 meters wide — and there, she saw something striking.

Melting of Thwaites’ underbelly is concentrated in deep crevasses

The vertical walls of the crevasses were scalloped rather than smooth, suggesting a higher rate of melting than that of the flat icy ceiling. And in these places, the video became blurry as the light refracted through vigorously swirling eddies of salty water and freshwater. That turbulent swirling of warm ocean water and cold meltwater is breaking up the cold layer that insulates the ice, pulling warm, salty water into contact with it, the scientists think.

Schmidt’s team calculated that the walls of the crevasses are melting at rates of up to 43 meters per year, the researchers report in the second Nature paper. The researchers also found rapid melt in other places where the level ceiling of ice is punctuated by short, steep sections.

The greater turbulence and higher melt also appear driven by ocean currents within the crevasses. Each time Schmidt steered Icefin up into a crevasse, the ROV detected streams of water flowing through it, as though the crevasse were an upside-down ditch. These currents moved up to twice as fast as the currents outside of crevasses.

The fact that melting is concentrated in crevasses has huge implications, says Peter Washam, an oceanographer on Schmidt’s team at Cornell: “The ocean is widening these features by melting them faster.”

This could greatly accelerate the years-long process by which some of these cracks propagate hundreds of meters up through the ice until they break through at the top — calving off an iceberg that drifts away. It could cause the floating ice shelf, which presses against an undersea mountain and buttresses the ice behind it, to break apart more quickly than predicted. This, in turn, could cause the glacier to spill ice into the ocean more quickly (SN: 12/13/21). “It’s going to have an impact on the stability of the ice,” Washam says.

This video, captured by a remote-operated vehicle called Icefin, shows the underside of Thwaites Glacier where it flows off the coastline of West Antarctica. Horizontal sections of the ice are smooth, indicating slow melting. But on steep ice surfaces — especially along the walls of deep cracks in the ice — the surfaces are scalloped, suggesting a much higher rate of melt, driven by turbulent swirling of warm, salty ocean water and cold, fresh meltwater. An example of the difference between those two surfaces is clearly visible from 0:11 to 0:13 in the video, when Icefin captures a scalloped vertical surface intersecting with a smooth horizontal one.

These new data will improve scientists’ ability to predict the future retreat of Thwaites and other Antarctic glaciers, says Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who assisted the team by providing satellite measurements of changes in the glacier. “You just cannot guess what the water structure might look like in these zones until you observe it,” he says.

But more work is needed to fully understand Thwaites and how it will further change as the world continues to warm. The glacier consists of two side-by-side fast-moving lanes of ice — one moving 3 kilometers per year, the other about 1 kilometer per year. Due to safety concerns, the team visited the slower lane — which still proved extremely challenging. Rignot says that scientists must eventually visit the fast lane, whose upper surface is more cracked up with crevasses — making it even harder to land aircraft and operate field camps.

The research reported today “is a very important step, but it needs to be followed by a second step,” the investigation of the glacier’s fast lane, he says. “It doesn’t matter how hard it is.”

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