Massive Hole Two-Thirds the Size of Manhattan Discovered in Antarctic Glacier

Christopher Davidson
February 3, 2019

Using NASA's ice-penetrating radar, scientists discovered that the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica actually has a hole that is nearly 300 meters (1,000 feet) tall and two-thirds the area of Manhattan. This cavern is estimated to have once contained 14 billion tons of ice but, alarmingly, "most of that ice melted over the last three years " according to NASA scientists. Scientists have long thought the glacier was not connected to the bedrock below, and they had expected to find some gaps along the base of the ice.

In Thwaites' case, that radar uncovered a huge cavern between the glacier itself and the bedrock below it.

'Thanks to a new generation of satellites, we can finally see the detail'.

The data comes from NASA's Operation IceBridge, a program that flies radar-equipped planes over the poles to map out glaciers and ice sheets in three dimensions. They've also used data from a constellation of Italian and German radars.

"[The size of] a cavity under a glacier plays an important role in melting", said Pietro Milillo, a NASA researcher and study lead author.

By observing the undersides of Antarctic glaciers, researchers hope to calculate how fast global sea levels will rise in response to climate change. The Thwaites Glacier is not the easiest place on Earth to reach.

This huge opening at the bottom of the Thwaites Glacier - a mass infamously dubbed the "most unsafe glacier in the world" - is so big it represents an overt chunk of the estimated 252 billion tonnes of ice Antarctica loses every year.

NASA has recently revealed the existence of an unknown yawning cavity, that's placed at the bottom of the Thwaites Glacier.

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NASA said the cavity is "one of several disturbing discoveries" made about the Thwaites Glacier-a 100 mile wide river of ice that is disintegrating and will one day collapse.

And worse, its neighbouring glaciers would raise sea levels an additional eight feet if all the ice was lost.

"We are discovering different mechanisms of retreat", Milillo said.

The US National Science Foundation and British National Environmental Research Council are beginning a five-year field project to answer the most critical questions about its processes and features.

The satellites revealed that the enormous void is hiding under the glacier's western side, the one farther away from the West Antarctic Peninsula, the researchers said.

Since 1992, it has been slowly becoming unstuck from the bedrock at a rate of 0.4 miles to 0.5 miles a year, and the melt rate is considered extremely high.

It's feared the melting of "the world's most unsafe glacier" could cause catastrophic flooding across the planet. The fastest retreat of floating ice is about a half mile a year with various areas thinning at up to 650 feet per year.

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