As icebergs floated past his Antarctica-bound ship, David Holland talked this week about how the melting glacier he’s traveling towards may hold warning signs for distant Canadian beaches.
The Newfoundland atmospheric and ocean scientist is part of an expedition to one of the world’s most freezing and inaccessible locations, the Thwaites glacier in the continent’s west, where he will record water temperatures in an underwater conduit the size of Manhattan.
Holland, director of the environmental fluid dynamics laboratory at New York University, said during a satellite phone call from aboard the South Korean icebreaker Araon:
“The question of whether sea level will change can only be answered by looking at the planet where it matters, and that is at Thwaites.”
It’s more than 16,000 kilometers from Holland’s village of Brigus, Newfoundland, on Conception Bay, to the spot roughly 100 kilometers inland from the “grounding zone” where the Thwaites glacier departs the continent and spreads into the Pacific.
The team’s 20,000 tons of drilling equipment will be put together to test the Pacific waves’ temperatures, salinity, and turbulence that have slipped under the glacier.
“If it (the water) is above freezing, and in salt water this means above -2 centigrade, that’s not sustainable. A glacier can’t survive that,” said Holland.
Since 2018, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration group has studied the ocean and marine sediments, detecting warming currents moving toward the deep ice and analyzing the glacier.
The Thwaites glacier, the size of Florida, meets the Amundsen Sea, and academics have argued in scientific papers over the last decade that it may someday lose enormous volumes of ice due to deep, warm water poured into the area as the world warms.
Certain media outlets have called Thwaites the “doomsday glacier” because of estimations that it might contribute 65 centimeters to global sea-level rise.
Bleak Theories of Catastrophic Collapse
Holland observes that current research models mostly predict that this will occur over centuries. Still, there are other lower likelihood ideas of “catastrophic collapse,” The enormous ice shelf melts within decades. He added:
“We want to pay attention to things that are plausible, and rapid collapse of that glacier is a possibility.”
While Holland investigates the melting under the water, other scientists are investigating how land-based Antarctic glaciers are losing their hold on points of connection to the seabed, perhaps causing sections to detach.
Other scholars point to the possibility of first cracks causing the ice shelf to shatter, similar to a cracked automobile windshield.
According to Holland, all processes must be thoroughly examined to establish or invalidate models of melting rates. He said:
“If the (water-filled) cave beneath the glacier we’re studying gets bigger, then Antarctica is losing ice and retreating, and if the cave collapses on itself, then (the cave) will disappear. This is how Antarctica can retreat, these kinds of specific events.”
These types of unique situations are how Antarctica might recede.
According to government experts, the consequences of the glacier extend back to Atlantic Canada, which, along with settlements along the Beaufort Sea and in southern British Columbia, is the part of the nation most susceptible to sea-level rise.
The 2019 government study Canada’s Changing Climate briefly discusses scenarios in which Antarctica ice melts faster than projected.
The 2019 study mentioned the potential of one meter of sea-level rise by 2100, based mainly on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publications that refer to them as low-probability “tipping point” scenarios.
However, Blair Greenan, a federal oceanographer who reviewed the relevant portion of the study, said in a recent interview that an increase in global sea levels of two meters by 2100 and five meters by 2150 cannot be ruled out because of uncertainties about ice sheet processes.
He added it is possible that these things may alter, and a shift of many feet in sea level would have a significant influence on Atlantic Canada.
What is required is glacier forecasting with the same level of precision that weather forecasting now delivers.
On the other hand, collecting glacier prediction data is a demanding task within the tiny window of time – late January to mid-February – when scientists may safely take observations.
At the end of January, helicopters will transport a hot-water drill, 30 barrels of fuel, and water to Holland’s location.
To access the 300-meter-long subsea tunnel, the drill will have to bore through roughly a kilometer of ice.
As evidence is gathered, some experts wonder whether there is really anything for Canadian coastal dwellers to be concerned about at this point.
According to one research by Ian Joughin, a glaciologist at the University of Washington, Thwaites will only lose ice at a pace that causes sea level rise of one mm per year – and not until the next century.
Sea levels would increase by 10 cm in 100 years at such pace.
Joughin said in a phone interview last week that developing coastline protection and other measures for the most catastrophic scenarios may not be financially effective at this moment since the greatest hazards may take up to a century to manifest.
However, Joanna Eyquem, a geoscientist based in Montreal who is researching methods to prepare infrastructure for rising sea levels, recently said in an email that glacier research reveals sea-level estimates are continually altering, and adaptation measures must be more rapid.
“The question is: How desperate does the situation need to be before we take action?” she asked.
Doris’s passion for writing started to take shape in college where she was editor-in-chief of the college newspaper. Even though she ended up working in IT for more than 7 years, she’s now back to what he always enjoyed doing. With a true passion for technology, Doris mostly covers tech-related topics.