This study, published today in the Procedure of the National Academy of Sciencesconcludes that understanding how the ice field breaks as it moves across bedrock is critical to understanding when that breakdown might occur. In addition to identifying the weak spots in the glacier, Lhermitte and colleagues created a computer model to predict how such cracks and kinks could affect other glaciers in Antarctica in the future.
According to Lhermitte, the aim of this model was not to predict the exact date of the Thwaites collapse. That’s next to impossible right now, given too many other unknown factors to consider, such as the pace of climate change, which is warming both air and water temperatures around the glaciers, and the movement of ocean currents in Antarctica. (A study published in the journal in 201
Instead, Lhermitte’s model is an attempt to include damage to the ice sheet in similar global climate models that predict both sea level rise and the future of Antarctica’s glaciers. “The understanding of how much and how quickly these glaciers will change is still unknown,” says Lhermitte. “We don’t know the whole process. What we’ve done with this study is to examine this damage, the rupture of these ice shelves, and their possible contribution to sea level rise. “
Predicting glacier ice movement is difficult because ice behaves as both a solid and a liquid, says Richard Alley, a professor of earth sciences at Penn State University who was not involved in any of these studies. Alley says the study of how glacial breaks are both new and important shed more light on how quickly they could collapse. In an email to WIRED, Alley compared the science of studying how Antarctic glaciers move to the process of building a bridge.
“You don’t want your bridge to break and you don’t want to have to predict exactly what conditions it will break. Therefore, you are designing with a large margin of safety. We cannot “design” Thwaites, so we face these great uncertainties. It is important to quantify parts of this, although we remember that this is still a fracture mechanic and one way or another might still surprise us, ”wrote Alley.
According to Lhermitte, based on his study results, the Antarctic glaciers will need to be closely monitored in the coming years in order to identify signs of rapid change that could lead to an environmental disaster. “They are those big sleeping giants,” says Lhermitte of the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers. “We become curious as to whether they sleep or stay awake with great consequences and rising sea levels.”
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