NASA has discovered a gigantic void in the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica while surveying the area. The void has created a 1,000-foot (300-meter) tall cavern that could have held nearly 14 billion tons of ice, according to estimates. NASA scientists believe that most of that ice has melted away over the past three years.
The surface area of the Antarctic is comprised of massive glaciers and ice shelves. The Thwaites Glacier alone holds enough ice to raise the world’s oceans more than two feet (65 centimeters). If all the neighboring glaciers were to melt as well, the oceans on Earth would rise roughly eight feet. Currently, researchers estimate that melting in Thwaites Glacier is responsible for four percent of global sea level rise annually.
NASA launched Operation IceBridge in 2010 to study how polar melt in the Arctic and Antarctic is linked to climate change. The West Antarctic ice sheet, where the Thwaites Glacier is located, is considered one of the most unstable and vulnerable. This glacier is closely watched by scientists in order to calculate how fast global sea levels will rise in response to climate change.
The void found in the Thwaites Glacier shows that the glaciers may be melting from underneath, not just on the ocean edges. This means that the warmer ocean waters can infiltrate the interior of the glacier and melt it from the inside, where the melting wouldn’t be readily apparent to researchers. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a news release, “The findings highlight the need for detailed observations of Antarctic glaciers’ undersides.”
Operation IceBridge is using ice-penetrating radar to measure the rate of polar melt in the areas that the project is studying. According to the scientists, the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf has retreated between 0.4 and 0.5 miles (0.6 to 0.8 kilometers) each year since 1992. The area around the Thwaites Glacier melted at a rate of more than 650 feet per year between 2014 and 2017.