NASA scientists were startled when a recent exploratory mission revealed a huge and rapidly-growing cavity on the underside of one of Antaractica's glaciers-signaling that the ice mass has been melting much faster than experts realized.
"Thanks to a new generation of satellites, we can finally see the detail", said Rignot, who is also associated with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The common thread among them is the infiltration of relatively warm ocean water below the ice, thinning it and causing the glaciers to flow out to sea faster. Findings are published in Science Advances.
"Understanding the details of how the ocean melts away this glacier is essential to project its impact on sea level rise in the coming decades", says NASA scientist Eric Rignot.
Once gone, surrounding glaciers will have no obstacle in their path, speeding up their melting and the potential release of enough water to raise sea levels by as much as 2.4m.
The Antarctic consists of vast swathes of ice and snow held together by an array of glaciers and massive ice shelves.
West Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier covers 70,270 square miles (182,000 square km), the approximate size of Florida.
"We are discovering different mechanisms of retreat", Millilo said.
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From 1992 to 2011, the centre of the Thwaites grounding line retreated by almost 14 kilometres.
Thwaites Glacier, curiously, isn't melting in a uniform way.
Civilization's most important glacier has revealed another worrying surprise to scientists.
"On the eastern side of the glacier, the grounding-line retreat proceeds through small channels, maybe a kilometer wide, like fingers reaching beneath the glacier to melt it from below", Milillo said.
In that region, the rate of grounding-line retreat doubled from about 0.6 kilometers a year from 1992 to 2011 to 1.2 kilometers a year from 2011 to 2017, researchers said.
Milillo hopes the new results will be useful for the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration researchers as they prepare for their fieldwork.
And worse, its neighbouring glaciers would raise sea levels an additional eight feet if all the ice was lost.