Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica
“Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica” by sjrankin is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

What if the Doomsday Glacier Collapses?

by Robert Hunziker

The Thwaites “Doomsday Glacier” in West Antarctica is spooking scientists. Satellite images shown at a recent meeting December 13th of the American Geophysical Union showed numerous large, diagonal cracks extending across the Thwaites’ floating ice wedge.

This is new information, and it’s a real shocker if only because it’s happening so quickly, much sooner than expectations. It could collapse. And, it’s big — 80 miles across with up to 4,000 feet depth with a 28-mile-wide cracking ice shelf that extends over the Amundsen Sea.

Meanwhile, and of special interest because of the underlying threat posed by Thwaites, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) COP26 meeting in November 2021 held in Glasgow was panned by scientists as one more sleepy affair, failing to come to grips with Western Civilization’s biggest challenge since the Huns trampled Rome. This outrageous failure by the world’s leaders, evidenced by weak-kneed proposals, is decidedly threatening to coastal cities throughout the world, especially with Thwaites glacier showing signs of impending collapse.

According to glaciologist Erin Pettit of Oregon State University, the weak spots on the Thwaites ice sheet are like cracks in a windshield: “One more blow and they could spider web across the entire ice shelf surface.” (Source: Crucial Antarctic Ice Shelf Could Fail Within Five Years, Scientists Say, SFGATE, December 13, 2021)

An article in NewScientist d/d December 13, 2021 discussed the AGU meeting of the satellite images of massive cracks: “Antarctica’s Thwaites glacier could break free of the continent within 10 years, which could lead to catastrophic sea level rise and potentially set off a domino effect in surrounding ice.”

Thwaites is a monster, one of the largest glaciers in the world. A 2017 Rolling Stone article, which followed the footsteps of a team of glaciologists at Thwaites glacier, summed up the situation, according to Ohio State glaciologist Ian Howat: “If there is going to be a climate catastrophe, it’s probably going to start at Thwaites… if we don’t slow the warming of the planet, it could happen within decades.” (Source: The Doomsday Glacier, Rolling Stone, May 9, 2017)

That was five years ago but after rapidly changing conditions on the ice sheet in only five years, scientists are no longer saying: “It could happen within decades.” Now the timeline has changed to: “Within a decade,” meaning by 2032. Moreover, as suggested in the aforementioned SFGATE article, there’s some speculation that it could burst wide open “sooner rather than later.”

The world is not prepared for a major disaster on a scale that spreads across the planet unimpeded and totally out of control. In that regard, it’s unfortunate that the world’s leaders have failed to take adequate measures, especially since scientists have been warning for decades of dire consequences for failure to limit and/or stop CO2 emissions. The truth of the matter is the world’s leaders have failed to protect their own people because of ignorance, greed, and tons of dark money.

Thwaites is what scientists refer to as “a threshold system.” Which means instead of melting slowly like an ice cube on a summer day, it is more like a house of cards: It’s stable until it’s pushed too far, then it collapses with a resounding thud!

What happens after the Ice Shelf collapses?

Thwaites’ ice shelf is one of the most significant buttresses against sea level rise in West Antarctica. New data provides clear evidence that warming ocean currents are eroding the eastern ice shelf from underneath. Meanwhile, a major risk is that the series of cracks spotted on the surface shatter into hundreds of icebergs. In the words of glaciologist Erin Pettit: “Suddenly the whole thing would collapse.”

A collapse of the ice shelf would not immediately impact sea level rise as the ice shelf itself already floats on the ocean surface. Its weight is already displaced in the water. But, once it collapses, the landlocked glacier containing a much larger volume of ice behind the ice shelf will be released, or sprung lose, and dramatically increase its rate of flow to the sea.

A collapse of Thwaites is no small deal. Depending upon several factors, it would trigger the onset of raised sea levels by some number of feet, and paradoxically, it would be happening in the face of IPCC guidance expecting sea levels to rise by a foot or so by 2100, assuming business as usual. That could turn out to be peanuts compared to a collapse of Thwaites if it triggers a domino effect of surrounding ice in West Antarctica, as alluded to in the aforementioned NewScientist article.

Thwaites’ significance to the normal course of life is so potentially impactful as a negative force that a team of scientists studies the glacier under the title: The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration. According to the lead glaciologist of the team, Ted Scambos (University of Colorado, Boulder): “Things are evolving really rapidly here… It’s daunting.” He spoke on Zoom from Thwaites glacier.

Once the ice shelf collapses, it’ll lead to massive “ice cliff collapsing,” ongoing collapse of towering walls of ice directly overlooking the ocean that crumbles into the sea. And, once ice cliff collapsing starts, it will likely become a self-sustaining “runaway collapse.”

This alarming signal of impending collapse of one of the world’s largest glaciers underscores a potent political message: What do the world’s leaders, e.g., the US Congress, plan to do about the fossil fuel-derived greenhouse gas emissions from cars, trucks, trains, planes, agriculture, and industry that blanket the atmosphere and heat up the oceans to the extent that a bona fide behemoth of ice is getting much closer to splintering apart and collapsing with attendant sea level rise that will flood Miami, just for starters?

Does Build Back Better include funding for continent-wide seawalls?

And yet, the biggest unknown in this grisly affair is timing, assuming Thwaites does collapse within a decade, how soon will ice cliff collapses bring on sea level rise that drowns the world’s coastal metropolises? Nobody knows the answer to that daunting question, but it certainly appears to be forthcoming.


Based in Los Angeles, Robert Hunziker is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and published in over 50 journals, magazines and sites worldwide.

Robert Hunziker can be reached at [email protected].

This article was originally published on December 17, 2021 © Counterpunch

One Reply to “What if the Doomsday Glacier Collapses?”

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