Antarctica’s ‘Doomsday Glacier’ Is Becoming More Unstable As It Melts

by : Emily Brown on : 24 Sep 2020 10:14
Antartica's 'Doomsday Glacier' Is Becoming More Unstable As It MeltsPA

Scientists have expressed the need to take action after increasing damage to an ice shelf known as the ‘doomsday glacier’ was found to have weakened its integrity. 

Researchers used satellite imagery to map damage to the Thwaites glacier in western Antarctica, monitoring the impacts on its strength and tracking how sections would crack and fragment from the glacier’s edge.


The glacier is roughly the same size as Britain, and has the potential to increase sea levels by 1.6 feet (0.5 metres) if it melts.

See footage of the ice shelf damage below:


New research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences focused on the rapid development of damaged areas on the ice shelves of Thwaites and Pine Island – another glacier in Antarctica.


The damaged areas consist of open fractures and crevasses where moving ice meets rock. These features are often the first indicators of catastrophic weakening for ice shelves, and the research suggests that it could increase the rate at which the ice shelf is retreating.

As the shelf becomes more damaged, it creates a feedback process that further weakens the shelf by speeding up the development of already-thinning areas and cracks until sections of ice break away.

Antarctica Ice Shelf meltingLhermitte et al., PNAS

Though the melting of the Thwaites glacier would be incredibly damaging in itself, the concept poses a wider problem as the shelf currently acts as a barrier between the ocean and other glaciers.


If the other glaciers were exposed, it could bring down ice masses throughout western Antarctica, causing a sea level rise of almost 10 feet (three metres) and sinking New York City, Miami, and the Netherlands.

The new research indicates the importance of considering feedback processes, as the authors explained:

The results of this study suggest that damage feedback processes are key to future ice shelf stability, grounding line retreat, and sea level contributions from Antarctica.

Moreover, they underline the need for incorporating these feedback processes, which are currently not accounted for in most ice sheet models, to improve sea level rise projections.


Andrew Shepherd, Director of the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at the University of Leeds, has predicted that Antarctica could lose all of its ice in 150,000 years if we don’t take action against the warming climate, the Mail Online reports.

He commented:

Although we won’t be around to see it, it’s a stark warning that the melting can’t be reversed unless we can cool our planet to below pre-industrial temperatures. Now is the time to act.


In another study from the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, published in Nature, researchers state the only way Antarctica could recover and forestall the sea level rise is if we return to pre-industrial processes.

However, as that is an unrealistic goal, the team hope that we can keep temperatures below 3.6°F higher than normal to at least stop things getting worse.

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Emily Brown

Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.

Topics: News, Antarctica, Climate Change, Now


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and 2 others
  1. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

    Damage accelerates ice shelf instability and mass loss in Amundsen Sea Embayment

  2. Mail Online

    Shocking computer animation shows how Antarctica could emerge from the ice if global warming continues unabated causing the frozen continent to melt and sea levels to rise

  3. Nature

    The hysteresis of the Antarctic Ice Sheet