Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

melting glacier in Antarctica

The Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica is seen from above via satellite image taken on February 21, 2000. (Photo: USGS/NASA Landsat data/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

'Unknown Territory': Antarctic Glaciers Melting at Rate Unprecedented in 5,500 Years: Study

"These currently elevated rates of ice melting may signal that those vital arteries from the heart of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet have been ruptured," said one researcher. "Is it too late to stop the bleeding?"

Julia Conley

The human-caused climate crisis is pushing crucial glaciers in Antarctica to lose ice at a rate not seen in more than 5,000 years, according to a new study published Thursday.

Researchers at the University of Maine, the British Antarctic Survey, and Imperial College London found that the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could cause global sea level rise of up to 3.4 meters, or over 11 feet, in the next several centuries due to their accelerated rate of ice loss.

"That the present-day rate of glacier retreat that has doubled over the past 30 years is, indeed, unprecedented."

The glaciers—one of which, the Thwaites, has been called the "doomsday glacier" by climate scientists because of its potential to raise sea levels—are positioned in a way that allows increasingly warm ocean water to flow beneath them and erode the ice sheet from the base, causing "runaway ice loss," the University of Maine team said in a statement.

The researchers examined penguin bones and seashells on ancient Antarctic beaches in order to analyze changes in local sea levels since the mid-Holocene period, 5,500 years ago.

Sea levels were higher and glaciers were smaller during the mid-Holocene, as the climate of the planet was warmer than it is today.

Since then, according to the study published in Nature Geoscience, relative sea levels have fallen steadily and the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers have stayed relatively stable—until recent decades.

Ice loss was likely accelerated just prior to the mid-Holocene, and since then, the rate of relative decrease in sea levels over the past 5,500 years was almost five times smaller than it is in present day, due to "recent rapid ice mass loss," according to the scientists.

"That the present-day rate of glacier retreat that has doubled over the past 30 years is, indeed, unprecedented," wrote Caroline Brogan, a science reporter at Imperial College.

With the Thwaites spanning an area of more than 74,000 square miles and the Pine Island glacier spanning more than 62,600 square miles, the rapid ice loss of the two glaciers could cause major rises in sea levels around the globe.

Dylan Rood of Imperial College's Department of Earth Science and Engineering, a co-author of the study, likened the two glaciers to arteries that have burst.

"These currently elevated rates of ice melting may signal that those vital arteries from the heart of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet have been ruptured, leading to accelerating flow into the ocean that is potentially disastrous for future global sea level in a warming world," said Rood. "Is it too late to stop the bleeding?"

The study follows increasingly urgent calls from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, and climate scientists around the world for an end to fossil fuel extraction, which is needed to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and limit the average global temperature from rising more than 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.

Scientists have warned that the accelerated melting of the Thwaites glacier is likely irreversible.

"We're going into unknown territory," Scott Braddock, a researcher at University of Maine, told Science News. "We don't have an analog to compare what's going on today with what happened in the past."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'Congress Must Do More NOW,' Sanders Says After Mass Shooting at July 4th Parade

"Today's terrible shooting in Highland Park is the latest reminder of our nation's deadly gun violence epidemic," the Vermont senator said. "Grocery stores. Schools. Churches. Fourth of July parades."

Jake Johnson ·


'Bloodbath': At Least 6 Dead, Dozens Wounded in Mass Shooting at Illinois July 4th Parade

"What freedom do we have if we fear being gunned down at a parade?" asked one progressive politician horrified by the reported carnage.

Brett Wilkins ·


On This July 4th, Abortion Rights Movement Says 'We're Not in the Mood for Fireworks'

"If we don’t have the ability to make decisions about if, when, and how to grow our families—we don't have freedom."

Brett Wilkins ·


Deadly Glacier Collapse in Italy 'Linked Directly to Climate Change'

At least seven people were killed when a glacier slid down a mountainside near a popular climbing route in the Alps on Sunday.

Julia Conley ·


'Organized Whitewash': US Claims Israeli Military's Murder of Journalist Not Intentional

"The odds that those responsible for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh will be held to account are all but nonexistent," said the human rights group B'Tselem in response to findings of U.S. State Department.

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo