As the planet continues to warm — the last seven years have been the hottest in recorded history — ever-quickening glacial melt and the expansion of ocean water as it heats up is causing sea level rise to accelerate. The foot of sea level rise that has occurred in the last hundred years or so that’s already driving damaging coastal flooding, however, will seem minuscule if researchers are right and the Thwaites glacier, Earth’s widest, slides off Antarctica and into the sea.
Scientists warned at a news conference in New Orleans this week that global warming has caused the Thwaites glacier to double its rate of melting over the last 30 years. But they say the glacier poses an even greater threat of causing rapid sea level rise if warm ocean water causes it to rapidly deteriorate.
According to researchers, warm ocean currents are causing the glacier’s seaborne section to melt from the bottom, where it comes in contact with a rock shelf that essentially allows it to act as a cork that prevents the land-based section of the glacier from rapidly flow into the sea. Just as disturbing, they’re seeing cracks on the top of the glacier growing so fast they predict it could disintegrate in as little as five years.
If this were to happen, it would set off a chain reaction that could cause sea level to rise several feet. “The glacier is the size of Florida or Britain and currently contributes four percent of annual global sea level rise,” the researchers said in a report. “If it does collapse, global sea levels would rise by several feet–putting millions of people living in coastal cities in danger zones for extreme flooding.”
The dire report was released by the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, a team of nearly 100 scientists funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and U.K. Natural Environment Research Council. Lead researcher Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, said, “If Thwaites were to collapse, it would drag most of West Antarctica’s ice with it. So it’s critical to get a clearer picture of how the glacier will behave over the next 100 years.” Scambos said Thwaites alone holds enough water to raise sea level by over two feet, but, if it takes surrounding glaciers to sea with it, sea-level could rise by up to 10 feet.
To protect their financial future, buyers and current owners of coastal real estate need to stay informed about the threat posed by the Thwaites Glacier and other drivers of sea level rise and sea level rise flooding.