Saving the Doomsday Glacier

The world’s largest glacier, Thwaites Glacier, is also known as the “Doomsday Glacier” because it could see the global sea levels rise by 65 centimeters if it were to collapse entirely, and up to 304 centimeters if it falls alongside the other glaciers around it. And scientists are suggesting that exactly that might happen.

Recent research indicates massive cracks along the eastern shelf of the Florida-size Antarctica glacier. The report warns that the ‘doomsday glacier’  could collapse into the ocean as soon as five years from now—an occurrence that scientists from the Thwaites Glacier Collaboration argue would flood coastal cities and endanger the lives of tens of millions of residents.

What makes the situation pretty dangerous is that a snapping off of the Thwaites glacier could start a chain of reactions as more ice becomes exposed and collapse. As a result, the sea levels would keep on rising. Until now, there has been about a 20 centimeters rise in the sea levels since 1900, and this is already causing environmental problems, including forcing communities to migrate.

With stakes this high, is there anything possible we can do to intervene? 

Even the Hope for Net-Zero Won’t Save Us

According to John Moore, a professor at the Arctic Center at the University of Lapland, the impending danger requires more than controlling GHG emissions. The glaciologist argues that even if the world reduced its greenhouse emissions to zero, the doomsday glacier would not thicken or re-stabilize. As a result, Moore recommends physical stabilization of the ice sheets to prevent possible collapse—a process known as glacier geoengineering, active conservation, or radical adaptation.

Geoengineering and Radical Adaptation

Along with other experts, Moore put across several possible solutions that could seemingly save the situation. Some of the measures involve the construction of artificial braces in what would be megaprojects or through the installation of structures that would push nature to reconstruct the existing systems.

The idea behind their propositions is that some engineering efforts channeled at the core of the problem could significantly reduce the possible flooding and property damage. Each low-lying island and the coastal city currently face danger, and these steps could save the damage and the costs of dealing with a collapsed glacier. Additionally, the world will manage to buy time and cut on GHG emissions and combat the climate change problem altogether.

Not the First Proposal

Notably, it’s not the first time for Moore and peers like Michael Wolovick to address the problem with glaciers. In 2018, they laid out the likelihood of preserving glaciers like the Thwaites using gigantic earth-moving projects. From the papers and articles published about the conservation, the projects would be about dredging or shipping materials to secure berms around or below the glaciers. The ridges would support the ice shelves and glaciers and block the warm water from below that tends to warm and melt the ice.

Still, Moore and his peers recently joined with researchers from the University of British Columbia to explore more possible solutions for the Thwaites glacier. This time, they delivered a more technical concept involving constructing what they call ‘seabed anchored curtains.

A Cheaper, More Feasible Solution to Wind Back the Clock and Let Nature Heal Itself 

The curtains would be sheets of geotextile material, with the buoyancy and flexibility to hold back and redirect the warm and dense water coming from the bottom. Moore says that once the sheets shut out the warm water adequately, the Thwaites ice shelf could start thickening and reattach to the submarine formations that have been holding it for centuries. As Moore put it, the goal is to ensure that the system returns to how it was in the early 20th century when the warm water could not reach the ice.

The researchers hope that this latest solution will be much cheaper than the previous proposals and that the sheets will withstand iceberg collisions. They have considered the cost and possible impacts of setting these curtains on major channels where warm water finds entry and fixing wider curtains that spread out in the bay, estimated at $50 billion. The curtains are removable if any adverse side effects come up. The designed models focus on using the seabed curtains around the Pine Island, Greenland, and Thwaites glaciers.

Other approaches suggested include constructing a fence that will hold snow from falling into the ocean and fitting insulating materials over the various portions of glaciers. Also, there is the need to remove the water that lubricates ice blocks and then combine techniques to dry up the beds below the glaciers.

Will the Proposed Solutions Work?

Moore’s inspiration comes from his earlier research works which suggest that a couple of large glaciers and ice streams will cause a massive rise in sea levels in a few centuries. Therefore, he is more proactive in providing solutions to the doomsday glacier problem but still acknowledges that the proposed measures have enormous challenges. First, Antarctica is characterised by turbulent and frigid conditions, which means the installation of curtains would necessitate submersible equipment and high-power icebreakers. Also, a lot needs to be done to determine possible environmental impacts, whether the curtains can adequately hold up, and how to change the flow of warm water.

Criticisms Abound

Some scientists have come out to criticise his concepts, calling them “partial solutions”. For instance, in response to the published papers and articles in 2018, some seven researchers led by Twila A. Moon of the University of Colorado argued that some solutions could accelerate the ice loss. Further, the researchers believe that the efforts could divert the attention of resources from eliminating GHG, which is the root of the issue.

Moon argues that the field fails to properly understand ice dynamics to be confident that the concepts will work. Further, she is concerned about the logistics, considering that even getting a research vessel to Antarctica is challenging. In her opinion, Moon suggests that solving the problem is all about turning off the GHG emissions hose, and that is something they understand since they know the sources and acknowledge climate change.

Legal and Political Issues

Legal scholars Edward Parson and Charles Corbett from Los Angeles, School of Law, and the University of California further note that the solutions face massive governance and legal challenges. First, the Madrid Protocol restricts activities around Antarctica, especially those that would leave substantial environmental impacts. Second, Antarctica is under the government of the Antarctica Treaty System’s alliance of nations with 29 voting members, and any one of them could reject the proposals.

However, the two legal scholars do not rule out the proposals altogether. They feel that the legal challenges are surmountable and could even inspire changes in governance. According to them, it’s a question of whether an alliance can see the project through with enough determination.

A Long Road Ahead

For Moore, he hopes to start conversations with Greenland communities to gather their contributions on the ideas before any proposal based on field research. The intent is to conduct tests in smaller regions like Alaska and Greenland first, where the work is easy, and then use the experiences gathered to move to more demanding areas.

Thwaites Glacier would be at the bottom of the list since it’s the most demanding project. Researchers assume it could take three decades to solve the perceived governance issues, secure financing, acquire the necessary skills for the project, and construct a public support system. Their forecasted project timeline poses a severe problem based on the latest research. The reports indicate that the most critical eastern glacier may not see the end of this first decade. 

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