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Climate change worth of concern: the Thwaites Glacier

Under the Scope

By Karl K. Gruber


The debate regarding climate change is best evaluated through what is happening in Antarctica, as it is there that the changing climate will have the most planet-wide impact. Recently, new data on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) has emerged that is vitally important. The Thwaites Glacier, crucial to the stability of the WAIS, is melting. However, it is not from above, but from below via geothermal heat. Institute for Geophysics researchers at The University of Texas at Austin (UTIG) recently published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings fundamentally change the understanding of conditions beneath the WAIS, where accurate information has previously been unobtainable. Using ice-penetrating radar techniques, researchers were able to map water flows under the Thwaites Glacier. By measuring ice-melting rates, UTIG researchers have been able to identify significant sources of geothermal heat under the glacier. These sources are distributed over a wider area and are much hotter than previously assumed.

Geothermal heat is melting the underside of the glacier and as such, it is a key factor in allowing the ice sheet to melt and slide. This is affecting the ice sheet’s overall stability and its contribution to future sea level rise. The cause of the variable distribution of heat beneath the glacier is the movement of magma and associated volcanic activity arising from the rifting of the Earth’s crust beneath the ice.

Prior ice sheet models assumed that heat flow under the glacier was uniform, like a pancake griddle. However, UTIG researchers have now shown that the glacier sits on something more like a multi-burner stovetop, with each burner producing heat of varying intensity. As an outlet glacier the size of Florida, the Thwaites Glacier is crucial to understanding what might happen to the WAIS as a whole and is considered a key indicator for projections of global sea level rise.

To put the problem in perspective, the collapse of the Thwaites Glacier would cause an increase of global sea level one meter of so. As ominous as a one meter rise in sea level would be, it is feared that the collapse of the Thwaites Glacier would destabilize the entire WAIS, producing a further rise in sea level of an additional one to two meters or more. This is serious stuff.

The anthropogenic global warming crowd has put their usual spin on this data. They claim that the Thwaites Glacier melt is due to the “combination” of geothermal warming and the warming of surrounding Antarctic waters … warm water due of course to increasing greenhouse gas emissions and not the magma pool the size of Florida underneath the glacier. If the loss of the WAIS were solely due to anthropogenic warming, it would suggest a decrease in ice accumulation in the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, instead of the increase we actually see. Unfortunately, the increasing size of the East Antarctic sheet is not enough to offset a collapse of the Thwaites Glacier. This is a real disaster in the making that, for a change, needs to trump politics.

The cult surrounding anthropogenic global warming has diverted attention from many genuine climate issues. The melting of the Thwaites Glacier is a prime example. One can hope that the researchers at the University of Texas will be fully funded to study the rate of the Thwaites Glacier collapse. Don’t hold your breath, as Michael Mann and the East Anglia crowd has shown, researchers and data that in any way contradict anthropogenic global warming must be destroyed. With this crowd, protecting the “consensus” trumps science.

Karl Gruber is a practicing surgical pathologist and a graduate of both The University of the South and the Medical University of South Carolina. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina with his wife, Georgia and three children.

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