The Thwaites Glacier, which derives its nickname from the end of the world due to its impact on sea level rise, is not only rapidly losing ice to climate change. Scientists have found it to be affected by the heat of the earth’s crust, as it is only 10 to 15 miles deep below West Antarctica, compared to around 25 miles in East Antarctica. Since the 1980s, it has lost nearly 600 billion tonnes of ice, alone contributing 4% of the annual sea level rise during this period.
The rate of ice loss from the glacier has accelerated dramatically over the past three decades, believed to be primarily due to a number of mysterious hot water rivers running through the belly of the glacier.
Now, a new study published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment suggests that the heat of the Earth itself could also play a huge role in West Antarctica.
Researchers analyzed data from the West Antarctic geomagnetic field to create new maps of geothermal heat flow in the region.
Lead author of the study, Ricarda Dziadez, said: “Our measurements show that where the earth’s crust is only 17 to 25 kilometers thick, a geothermal heat flux of up to 150 milliwatts per square meter can occur under the Thwaites Glacier. “
Scientists have long suspected that West Antarctica is absorbing more heat from the planet’s upper mantle while it is in an ocean trench.
The new study quantifies the difference for the first time.
Co-author Dr Karsten Gohl added: “The temperature under the glacier depends on a number of factors, for example whether the soil is made up of solid, compact rocks or meters of water-saturated sediment.
“Water conducts rising heat very efficiently. But it can also evacuate thermal energy before it reaches the bottom of the glacier.
Experts have previously warned that if Thwaites collapsed into the ocean, global sea level would rise by about 25 inches and destroy coastal communities around the world.
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They said the maps “should be viewed as scouting tools to identify places that might require further risk investigation.”
The group added, “Our approach facilitates rapid mapping of any scenario and reflects well the threats of future permanent sea level rise.
“However, the accuracy of these maps decreases when assessing the risk of extreme flooding.”
The forecast does not take into account other risk factors such as coastal erosion, inland flooding or precipitation.