When Goodell’s article was published in 2017, scientists were worried that Thwaites, which measures in at 74,000 square miles, could collapse within decades. Now, researchers worry the glacier could shatter like a car window within five years. “The ice shelf is breaking up and could be gone in less than a decade,” Oregon State University Glaciologist Erin Pettit told Goodell in a recent article. Pettit is part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC). The ITGC is composed of a team of scientists from the U.S. and U.K. who are researching the glacier for five years. Their efforts began in 2018 and include studying not just the glacier but the conditions around it, like deep ice currents and ocean and marine sediments. Much of this has to do with how Thwaites is melting—warm water from below is causing the glacier to thaw. Once that process reaches a certain threshold, the eastern ice shelf of the glacier could collapse extremely quickly and, in a similarly speedy fashion, raise sea levels to an alarming point globally.
Predicting Thwaites’ collapse is extremely difficult given the host of factors that could lead to it breaking apart altogether. Estimates from the latest portion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which was released in August, show sea levels could rise by between one and six feet by 2100. Further research mapping overall Antarctic ice sheet loss into the year 3000 presents a bevy of scenarios that range from less than 2/5 of a foot of sea-level equivalent melting, which will raise ocean levels slightly, to more than 17 feet under the most sensitive circumstances that include little to no changes in reducing emissions. It’s even harder to estimate how losing substantial portions of Thwaites or ice sheets, in general, will impact our oceans, as these major facets of Antarctica seemingly work together to stabilize each other. For example, ice shelves buttress glaciers, essentially holding them in place. How Thwaites comes apart will provide important information on how much sea-level rise the world might endure when it happens.
Sadly, this isn’t a scenario where Thwaites’ demise can be reversed. Even if we were to reach net-zero expediently, ocean temperatures—and land temperatures—will continue to rise. Reaching net-zero is more critical than ever in order to respond to crises like the Thwaites collapse, however. Being able to slow the process of Thwaites coming apart could make a massive difference between a scenario that includes an adequate response to rising sea levels that saves lives and ensures the health of our planet, or a continued risk to the 250 million people like myself who live within three feet of high-tide lines.
We can see the warnings the planet is giving us; we have to respond accordingly. A great way to reduce the amount of damaging emissions contributing to this issue is by eliminating subsidies that incentivize fossil fuel companies to continue polluting. Take action and tell Congress to end fossil fuel tax giveaways.