An Antarctic ice shelf could crack and disintegrate within the next decade, allowing a Florida-sized glacier to slide into the ocean and raising sea levels by feet, scientists warned Wednesday.
A dramatic chain reaction in the ice could occur by 2031, starting with the Thwaites Glacier, said Erin Pettit, a professor at Oregon State University who studies glacier and ice sheet dynamics.
The glacier, a river of flowing ice, is blocked from falling into the sea by the eastern ice shelf, which sits atop an underwater mountain and is disintegrating.
New research Pettit presented to a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans suggests the final collapse of the ice shelf may occur “within as little as 5 years” and mark the beginning of the end of the Thwaites Glacier.
The ice at the top of the shelf is newly crisscrossed with cracks that are expanding toward the center of the shelf as quickly as 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) a year, the research found.
Scientists pointed to a zigzag path they say is the likely site for the ice shelf to crack and disintegrate.
Thwaites is the “widest glacier in the world” and has “doubled its outflow speed within the last 30 years,” said Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and a contributor to the research.
“If Thwaites were to collapse, it would drag most of west Antarctica’s ice with it,” Scambos said in a news release. “So it’s critical to get a clearer picture of how the glacier will behave over the next 100 years.”