Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier, the largest on Earth, is in trouble.
The glacier stretches across the Southern Ocean and is losing around 50 billion tonnes of ice per year, with this loss doubling over the past 30 years. In 2019, NASA scientists discovered a huge cavity under the glacier, about two-thirds the size of Manhattan, which could be accelerating the glacier’s destruction. This week, researchers mapped the ocean floor in front of Thwaites, showing that the glacier had retreated rapidly in the past — and suggesting that a small shock could accelerate its retreat once more.
This is disturbing. If Thwaites melts, sea levels will rise about 25 inches. Its destruction could also destabilize the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which blocks about 10 meters of sea level rise. Such a meltdown would be catastrophic.
With each new study, we learn more about Thwaites’ vulnerability. And with each new study we see Thwaites return to the news cycle, largely thanks to his powerful and alarming nickname: “Doomsday Glacier.”
But this nickname, while it has generated mountains of press exploring Thwaites’ fate, may actually do more harm than good. It’s a label that glaciologists and scientists shy away from using – so why is it so prevalent in the mainstream press? Should we continue to use it? And why does it matter?
doom and gloom
On May 9, 2017, Rolling Stone published a deeply researched and brilliantly written piece on Thwaites by climate writer Jeff Goodell. It had a simple and powerful title: Doomsday Glacier. It’s perfect for the story. And the nickname stuck.
Today, publications repeat the line ad nauseum every time a major new study about Thwaites is published. Some stories suggest that Thwaites is known as the Doomsday Glacier in “scientific circles” because its breakup could lead to a catastrophic sea level rise of more than three to 10 meters. It is not like that at all.
We don’t know for sure how Thwaites’ breakup would change sea levels in the short term. The glacier itself blocks about 25 centimeters of sea level rise, but most stories use the three to 10 meter range. This actually refers to the loss of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
And although extensive research indicates that Thwaites is in trouble, it’s not scientists or glaciers or polar experts who are talking about the nickname. I spoke to a number of experts involved in glacial and polar research, all of whom emphasized that the fate of the Thwaites is increasingly worrying. However, most had mixed feelings about the Doomsday moniker, with many not using the title at all.
“I discourage the use of the term ‘Doomsday Glacier’ to refer to Thwaites Glacier,” said Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder and a member of the Thwaites Glacier Collaboration. Scambos suggests that “wild card glacier” or “most dangerous glacier” could be used instead.
One of the main reasons scientists feel uneasy about this phrase is that it suggests we are already doomed. “We’re not,” said Eric Rignot, an Earth scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The narrative of doom and gloom feeds into a sense that we have already passed the point of no return, that Thwaites is already lost, which, more broadly, can lead to inaction. The name gives us the wrong idea.
“It’s kind of very alarming,” noted Helen Fricker, a glaciologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Rignot said we could still slow the withdrawal of the Thwaites if we took the right climate action, but “time is running out”. This is a little less severe than the end of the world, of course.
Another reason “doomsday” might not be a great label is because it obscures the biggest problem facing Earth’s frozen areas: the “cryosphere.” Human-caused climate change and the burning of fossil fuels has caused glacial retreat across the planet.
“On the one hand, it’s a wake-up call, aka take these things seriously,” Rignot said. “On the other hand, it sums up the situation as if there’s just one bad glacier out there.”
Rignot explains that there are glaciers all over the world—in East Antarctica and Greenland, for example—that trap much more water. Yew those if they were to break up and disappear, sea level rise could be an order of magnitude greater than what we see with Thwaites.
A study this week in Nature Geoscience, led by marine geophysicist Alastair Graham and co-authored by British Antarctic Survey glaciologist Robert Larter, shows just how precarious the situation is and how much sooner than expected the Thwaites could be retreating. intend even Larter avoids using the word “doomsday.”
That’s not to say Thwaites isn’t important.
“Thwaites is obviously not the only glacier that matters, but it is objectively the most worrying glacier on Earth in terms of its potential to generate large amounts of future sea-level rise,” said Andrew Mackintosh, a glaciologist at Monash University.
So should we continue to use “Doomsday Glacier”?
You can’t always get what you want
In September 2021, cases of the coronavirus were increasing in South Africa. Scientists began to discover a variant of the virus called C.1.2, with a number of mutations, a discovery that quickly found its way into the press through preliminary studies.
Although the new variant accounted for only 5% of new cases, some publications jumped into the news, describing the variant as “worse than delta” and calling it a variant of Doomsday.
Doomsday, it seems, can be caused by many different sources.
The coronavirus scenario is an interesting comparison. By the time doomsday headlines started circulating, the World Health Organization was already suggesting that C.1.2 was not a variant of concern. This meant it was easy to drop the alarmist name.
For Thwaites, things are a little different. the scientists They are worried about her future. Things are getting worse. Doomsday, in this case, helps to draw attention to the plight of the glacier and may help to understand how problematic things have become. And maybe it’s already too late to change course and rename it. Even the first line of the Thwaites Glacier Wikipedia page says it is also known as the Last Glacier.
“There’s no getting ahead of the label,” Scambos said. “On the plus side, the public is now aware of the area because of the power of the nickname.”
So while scientists might not feel so good about it, we might just be stuck with it. We simply cannot let it hide the fact that there are many glaciers under threat, and the threat is us: If we do not give up fossil fuels, we will continue to increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and bring about the Thwaites’ surrender.
And the real apocalypse will not be the loss of Thwaites. It will be when we disturb areas like East Antarctica, which closes meters above sea level. If that sheet is lost, it would dramatically change the face of the Earth. Fricker says that’s not a future that’s going to happen anytime soon, but if we start to see dramatic changes in that ice sheet, then that’s when we’re in real trouble.
“This is judgment day,” she said.
Correction, September 7 at 3:47 am PT: This article originally incorrectly stated who led the Nature Geoscience paper. The main author is Alastair Graham.