One thing that’s hard to grasp about the climate crisis is that big changes can happen fast. In 2019, I was aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer, a 308-foot-long scientific research vessel, cruising in front of the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. One day, we were sailing in clear seas in front of the glacier. The next day, we were surrounded by icebergs the size of aircraft carriers.
As we later learned from satellite images, in a matter of 48 hours or so, a mélange of ice about 21 miles wide and 15 miles deep had cracked up and scattered into the sea.
It was a spooky moment. Thwaites Glacier is the size of Florida. It is the cork in the bottle of the entire West Antarctic ice sheet, which contains enough ice to raise sea levels by 10 feet…
Given the ongoing war for American democracy and the deadly toll of the Covid pandemic, the loss of an ice shelf on a far-away continent populated by penguins might not seem to be big news. But in fact, the West Antarctic ice sheet is one of the most important tipping points in the Earth’s climate system. If Thwaites Glacier collapses, it opens the door for the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet to slide into the sea. Globally, 250 million people live within three feet of high tide lines. Ten feet of sea level rise would be a world-bending catastrophe. It’s not only goodbye Miami, but goodbye to virtually every low-lying coastal city in the world…
Or to put it more urgently: “If there is going to be a climate catastrophe,” Ohio State glaciologist Ian Howat once told me, “it’s probably going to start at Thwaites.”
RTFA.There are many variables. There may even be a small chance they don’t stack up to be a disaster. But, I wouldn’t count on it.