Thursday, July 13, 2017

The doomsday glacier

Knut Christianson, a 33-year-old glaciologist at the University of Washington, has been there twice. A few years ago, Christianson and a team of seven scientists traveled more than 1,600 kilometres from McMurdo Station, the main research base in Antarctica, to spend six weeks on Thwaites, traversing along the flat, featureless prairie of snow and ice in six snowmobiles and two Tucker Sno-Cats. “You feel very alone out there,” Christianson says. He and his colleagues set up camp at a new spot every few days and drilled holes 90 metres or so into the ice. Then they dropped tubes of nitroglycerin dynamite into these holes and triggered a blast. Sensors tracked vibrations as they shot through the ice and ricocheted off the ground below. By measuring the shape and frequency of these vibrations, Christianson could see the lumps and ridges and even the texture of a crushed continent deeply buried beneath the ice.

Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica is so
 remote that only 28 human beings have
ever set foot on it.
But Christianson and his colleagues were not just ice geeks mapping the hidden topography of the planet. They were mapping a future global disaster. As the world warms, determining exactly how quickly ice melts and seas rise may be one of the most important questions of our time. Half the world’s population lives within 80 kilometres of a coastline. Trillions of dollars of real estate is perched on beaches and clustered in low-lying cities like Miami and New York. A long, slow rise of the waters in the coming decades may be manageable. A more abrupt rise would not be. “If there is going to be a climate catastrophe,” says Ohio State glaciologist Ian Howat, “it’s probably going to start at Thwaites.”


Read the Rolling Stone story by  Jeff Goodell - “The doomsday glacier.”

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