DATE: November 21, 2017
SNIP: The glaciers of Pine Island Bay are two of the largest and fastest-melting in Antarctica. (A Rolling Stone feature earlier this year dubbed Thwaites “The Doomsday Glacier.”) Together, they act as a plug holding back enough ice to pour 11 feet of sea-level rise into the world’s oceans — an amount that would submerge every coastal city on the planet. For that reason, finding out how fast these glaciers will collapse is one of the most important scientific questions in the world today.
In the past few years, scientists have identified marine ice-cliff instability as a feedback loop that could kickstart the disintegration of the entire West Antarctic ice sheet this century — much more quickly than previously thought.
A wholesale collapse of Pine Island and Thwaites would set off a catastrophe. Giant icebergs would stream away from Antarctica like a parade of frozen soldiers. All over the world, high tides would creep higher, slowly burying every shoreline on the planet, flooding coastal cities and creating hundreds of millions of climate refugees.
All this could play out in a mere 20 to 50 years — much too quickly for humanity to adapt.
“It could happen faster or slower, I don’t think we really know yet,” says Jeremy Bassis, a leading ice sheet scientist at the University of Michigan. “But it’s within the realm of possibility, and that’s kind of a scary thing.”
There’s a recurring theme throughout these scientists’ findings in Antarctica: What we do now will determine how quickly Pine Island and Thwaites collapse. A fast transition away from fossil fuels in the next few decades could be enough to put off rapid sea-level rise for centuries. That’s a decision worth countless trillions of dollars and millions of lives.
“The range of outcomes,” Bassis says, “is really going to depend on choices that people make.”