Massive Cavity Discovered Beneath Antarctic Glacier

031 thwaites glacier cavity antarctica

A massive cavity that is two-thirds the size of Manhattan and almost the height of the Chrysler Building is growing at the bottom of one of the world's most risky glaciers - a discovery that NASA scientists called "disturbing".

Pietro Milillo of JPL, the study's lead author, said: "The size of a cavity under a glacier plays an important role in melting and as more heat and water get under the glacier, it melts faster". 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.

Yet the huge size and fast-moving growth rate of the hole in Thwaites was called both "disturbing" and "surprising" by researchers.

Thwaites Glacier, approximately the size of Florida, once contained over 14 billion tons of frozen water, enough to raise the world's sea level by over 2 feet (65 centimeters).

Thwaites Glacier alone holds enough ice above sea level to raise sea levels by more than 65cm if it was to melt.

Scientists say the glacier is responsible for about four percent of global sea level rise.

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

'Thanks to a new generation of satellites, we can finally see the detail'. It could also lead to melting in neighboring glaciers that could add another 8 feet to sea levels if they completely melted, JPL said.

Thwaites has been described as one of the world's most risky glaciers because its demise could lead to rapid changes in global sea levels.

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

Much of that ice disappeared at an "explosive rate", scientists reported-likely melting only in the last three years.

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.

The glacier has been coming unstuck from a ridge in the bedrock at a steady rate of about 0.6 to 0.8 kilometers a year since 1992.

Researchers hope these new findings will help other scientists better understand the connection between the weather and glaciers.

These conclusions come from a new study that marshals improved data sets and was published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Co-authors were from the University of California, Irvine; the German Aerospace Center in Munich, Germany; and the University Grenoble Alpes in Grenoble, France.

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