University of Washington researchers used detailed topography maps and computer modeling to show that the collapse appears to have already begun. The fast-moving Thwaites Glacier will likely disappear in a matter of centuries, researchers say, raising sea level by nearly 2 feet. That glacier also acts as a linchpin on the rest of the ice sheet, which contains enough ice to cause another 10 to 13 feet (3 to 4 meters) of global sea level rise. The study is published May 16 in Science.
“There’s been a lot of speculation about the stability of marine ice sheets, and many scientists suspected that this kind of behavior is under way,” said lead author Ian Joughin, a glaciologist at the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory. “This study provides a more quantitative idea of the rates at which the collapse could take place.”
The good news is that while the word “collapse” implies a sudden change, the fastest scenario is 200 years, and the longest is more than 1,000 years. The bad news is that such a collapse may be inevitable.
“Previously, when we saw thinning we didn’t necessarily know whether the glacier could slow down later, spontaneously or through some feedback,” Joughin said. “In our model simulations it looks like all the feedbacks tend to point toward it actually accelerating over time; there’s no real stabilizing mechanism we can see.”