New Swabia: Scientists Discover Gigantic Cavity Beneath Arctic Ice

A massive cavity that is two-thirds the size of Manhattan and nearly the height of the Chrysler Building is growing at the bottom of the disintegrating Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. This “disturbing” discovery is big enough to contain 14 billion tons of ice, most of which has melted over the last three years.

huge cavity antarctica glacier, huge cavity antarctica glacier february 2019, huge cavity antarctica glacier photo
The giant cavity grows in the Thwaites Glacier. Picture by NASA/OIB/Jeremy Harbeck

Thwaites Glacier, one of the hardest places to reach on Earth, is responsible for around 4% of the global sea rise. Scientists had long predicted the glacier was not tightly attached to the bedrock underneath it and expected to find some gaps.

Yet the immense size and fast-moving growth rate of the hole in Thwaites was called both “disturbing” and “surprising” by researchers.

[The size of] a cavity under a glacier plays an important role in melting,” the study’s lead author, Pietro Milillo, said. “As more heat and water get under the glacier, it melts faster.

huge cavity antarctica glacier, huge cavity antarctica glacier february 2019, huge cavity antarctica glacier photo
Changes in surface height at Thwaites Glacier’s grounding line, 2011 to 2017. Sinking areas in red and rising areas in blue. The growing cavity (red mass, center) caused the greatest sinking. The mottled area (bottom left) is the site of extensive calving. Contours show bedrock topography. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Researchers hope the new findings will help others preparing for fieldwork in the area better understand the ice-ocean interactions.

The findings highlight the need for detailed observations of Antarctic glaciers’ undersides in calculating how fast global sea levels will rise in response to climate change,” according to the study by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Thwaites holds enough ice to raise the world ocean just over 2 feet and backstops neighboring glaciers that are capable of rising sea levels an additional 8 feet if all ice were lost.

lizard king antarctica
Before There Were Dinosaurs, This Triassic ‘Lizard King’ Ruled Antarctica. Picture by Copyright Adrian Stroup/Field Museum

Well, it seems that millions of years before the ground trembled under the footfalls of T. rex, an iguana-size “lizard king” was living in Antarctica, when it was bursting with plant and animal life. Soon it will lurk its head out of its home, the giant cavity!

Original Article:

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