Strange days have found us / Strange days have tracked us down.
These are strange days. It will strike some of us as an exquisite irony that, in this age of climate denial and fake news, we’re also living in an age of new and unique discoveries. Science continues to open a window onto new frontiers and open a door to new finds. Less than 10 years after scientists discovered evidence of a prehistoric megalake beneath the sands of the Sahara Desert — a lake formed some 250,000 years ago that, at its highest level, covered some 42,000 square miles (109,000 square kms) over the eastern Sahara where the Nile River burst its banks and pushed through a new channel in Egypt — now NASA scientists have discovered a growing void of emptiness deep inside Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier, planet Earth’s most important glacier.
The hollowed-out section of ice, somewhat misleadingly dubbed a “hole” by much of the world’s media, is two-thirds the size of Manhattan and 1,000 feet (300 metres) tall, and represents some 14 billion tons of missing ice. That might not sound like much, considering the glacier itself is the size of Florida, but scientists are alarmed that it is the most pronounced sign yet that rapid ice melt caused by climate change is happening much faster than even the most pessimistic climate models suggested.
The Thwaites Glacier is critical to earth science because it’s the largest outflow channel in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, already considered to be vulnerable to ice melt.
If the glacier melts entirely — and that’s no longer seen as a big “if” — sea levels could rise as much as 10 feet over the next 50-100 years. That could, in theory, flood every coastal city on Earth, possibly within the lifetimes of many people who are alive today.
Climate deniers will argue, of course, that this is simply more alarmism from conservationists looking to feather their fundraising nests and justify their existence — an argument that conveniently overlooks the fact that if, any side in the debate is driven by financial considerations, it’s the big oil and energy companies that have vowed to continue extracting fossil fuels, no matter the cost to the environment, and despite clear evidence that man-made carbon emissions are the big driver behind rapidly accelerating climate change.
This is the height of the Antarctic summer when, for obvious reasons, most of the important scientific surveys are being conducted. The Thwaites Glacier has come under heightened scrutiny in a month when temperatures across Australia have soared to a record-breaking 50°C in some towns, and much of the US Midwest is locked into a deep freeze where an Arctic polar vortex has caused temperatures to plummet as low as minus-60°C, once wind chill is factored into the equation. (It might sound counterintuitive, but actually record cold is also a sign of “global warming,” which is why that term has fallen out of favour with those who know what they’re talking about. “Climate change” is a more accurate description, and some — myself, for example — prefer “climate emergency,” if only to inject a sense of urgency into the debate.
“Understanding the details of how the ocean melts away this glacier is essential to (measuring) its impact on sea-level rise in the coming decades,” Eric Rignot, one of the study’s co-authors, said in a prepared statement.
Science may be unfashionable to some, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. As the famed astronomer and advocate for science education Neil deGrasse Tyson — often described as “America’s preeminent badass astrophysicist” — is fond of saying, science doesn’t much care what you or anyone else thinks. “The thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
The reason a void — or a cavity or a hole, or whatever you care to call it — under a glacier is worth measuring is because the more heat and water that seeps under a glacier, the faster it melts.
The void at the heart of the Thwaites Glacier wasn’t stumbled over by some adventurers in a sea kayak, either. The find is the result of intensive data analysis of ice-penetrating radar readings taken from space by the European Space Agency, in cooperation with NASA’s Operation IceBridge (established in 2010 to measure the connection between the polar regions and the global climate) and scientists at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Study results were published Jan. 30 in the journal Science Advances.
The discovery comes at the same time the 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition has intensified its search of the Antarctic seabed for the remains of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, which was crushed by pack ice and sank in 1915, and at the same time UK and US scientists are launching their own five-year research project, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, which will use artificial intelligence, seafloor ROVs (Remote Operated Vehicles), ocean-based weather stations and — get this — more than a dozen warm-blooded seals fitted with sensors designed to measure and gather readings of glacial ice and the surrounding water.
“Thanks to a new generation of satellites,” Rignot said, “we can finally see the detail.”
That detail might not be entirely what we want to see.
Strange days have found us / And through their strange hours / We linger alone / Bodies confused / Memories misused / As we run from the day / To a strange night of stone.
— ‘Strange Days’ by The Doors, 1967.