The cork is about to pop

Just in case you think my last post was too pessimistic, here’s the latest news from Antarctica.

This week, ice scientists meeting in New Orleans warned that something even more alarming was brewing on the West Antarctic ice sheet – a vast basin of ice on the Antarctic peninsula. Years of research by teams of British and American researchers showed that great cracks and fissures had opened up both on top of and underneath the Thwaites glacier, one of the biggest in the world, and it was feared that parts of it, too, may fracture and collapse possibly within five years or less.

Thwaites makes Larsen B look like an icicle. It is roughly 100 times larger, about the size of Britain, and contains enough water on its own to raise sea levels worldwide by more than half a metre. It contributes about 4% of annual global sea level rise and has been called the most important glacier in the world, even the “doomsday” glacier. Satellite studies show it is melting far faster than it did in the 1990s.

Thwaites is worrisome, but there are many other great glaciers in Antarctica also retreating, thinning and melting as the Southern Ocean warms. Many are being held back because Thwaites acts like a cork, blocking their exit to the sea. Should Thwaites fall apart, scientists believe the others would speed up, leading to the collapse of the whole ice sheet and catastrophic global sea level rises of several metres.

The Thwaites glacier looks so small in the satellite view. All the white icy stuff piled up behind it looks even more ominous now.

Satellite view of Antarctica with the Thwaites glacier marked in red.

Don’t panic! Governments around the world are leaping into action…or not.

Yet just one month after Cop26 ended in Glasgow, the warning that the 300-metre thick, 50-mile wide Thwaites glacier has started to crack up has been met with silence from governments preoccupied by Covid-19 and the return of normal politics. The danger is that the many actions pledged in November to address global heating will be shelved for another year, to become just one more risk in an increasingly dangerous world.

Thwaites underlines that global heating and glaciers do not wait for politicians, and every year action to reduce climate emissions is delayed only accelerates global disaster.

Isn’t it reassuring that no matter how dismal I sound, reality is so much worse?


  1. Walter Solomon says

    Maybe Greta Thunberg can save us. Once Al Gore takes her under his wing…

    Who am I kidding? We’re doomed.

  2. Who Cares says

    Oooh. Goodie, this will mean the city I live in will get sea property in a few decades. And cheap too, the price is half the country getting flooded.

    /s(arcasm just in case).

  3. kenbakermn says

    It is always worse than we estimate, even when we incorporate into our estimates the fact that it is always worse than we estimate.

  4. DrVanNostrand says

    And just in time, President Manchin vetoed the bill with all the climate provisions. In part, he said, because it will transition us to green energy too quickly.

  5. pwdm says

    Thwaites is “about the size of Britain” and the “300-metre thick, and 50 mile Thwaites glacier” tells us that Britain is just not what it used to be (or Thwaites is one really, really long glacier).

  6. says

    It’s the ice shelf that restrains the Thwaites glacier, not the glacier itself, that’s collapsing. When the ice shelf is gone, the glacier will flow into the ocean faster, but it will take centuries for it to disappear entirely. Here is the accurate story, from Science.

    “A collapse of the entire glacier, which some researchers think is only centuries away, would raise global sea level by 65 centimeters. ”

    So it’s bad news, but won’t much affect anyone alive today.

  7. davidc1 says

    Well to be honest,if all this rising sea water results in a orange wig and red tie floating off the coast of Florida,I say bring it on .

  8. Rich Woods says

    300-metre thick, 50-mile wide

    Another journalist happy to mix measurements, probably because they don’t know how to convert between the two.

  9. stroppy says

    What it’s indicative of.

    Greenland, Antarctica Melting Six Times Faster Than in the 1990s
    “The two regions have lost 6.4 trillion tons of ice in three decades; unabated, this rate of melting could cause flooding that affects hundreds of millions of people by 2100.”

    Just for fun, factor in the additional effects of climate change and other kinds of environmental damage along with increased migration, political and economic instability, war, and food insecurity, and the future looks even cloudier.

  10. numerobis says

    cervantes: Thanks for the Science article that actually knows what it’s talking about, unlike in the Guardian.

    But to your last point: Thwaites and other glaciers are affecting people today already. Sea level rise has been accelerating a fair bit over the last 20 years.

    Rich Woods: in the UK, short distances are metric, while long distances are miles. No, it doesn’t make any sense, but that’s how it is.

  11. ORigel says

    The Guardian article is a bit inaccurate. WaPo says that a floating ice shelf holding back the Thwaites glacier may disintegrate in 3 to 5 years. That in itself won’t raise sea levels because the ice shelf is already in the water, but the Thuwaites glacier will flow faster into the sea after the ice shelf breaks up.

  12. birgerjohansson says

    Right now, Youtube has “Rob Perlman reflects about the end of the world….and democracy “

  13. says

    This is the plot for the book “New York 2140”. Although like all things climate related, its coming decades quicker than it did in the book.

  14. unclefrogy says

    well I am not sure what you think that means. the effects of climate change are already being felt all over. There are even now places with some negative effects to sea level rise. It is not going to be some big jump in 10 or 30 years it is going to be a little at a time with an increasing rate as time goes on that is clear. Thwaits is not the only f’n threatening glacier on the planet. We do not know all of the feedback mechanisms in operations. the climate is a big thing and like all really huge things has a momentum and direction that is not easily changed
    What are you proposing we should be doing in light of your fact ““So it’s bad news, but won’t much affect anyone alive today.” ?

  15. John Morales says


    well I am not sure what you think that means.

    Basically, the doom that will ineluctably befall is not gonna happen right away, but will take some time to fully manifest.

    From the cited article:

    An alarming crackup has begun at the foot of Antarctica’s vulnerable Thwaites Glacier, whose meltwater is already responsible for about 4% of global sea level rise.
    In a worst case, this part of Thwaites could triple in speed, increasing the glacier’s contribution to global sea level in the short term to 5%, Pettit says.

    In the short term, it only increases the rate of current global sea level rise by 25%.

    (In Cervantes’ view, that won’t much affect anyone living today — a mere bagatelle!)

  16. Rich Woods says

    @numerobis #13:

    in the UK, short distances are metric, while long distances are miles. No, it doesn’t make any sense, but that’s how it is.

    I am in the UK, I’ve lived here all my life, and that’s not a standard. It’s journalists not thinking about numbers, lifting one figure from one source and another one from a second source. The other daft thing many do when they do think to convert measurement systems for consistency is to express an unsupported degree of accuracy, such as rewriting “about 30 metres away” to “98 feet away”. They know how to use a calculator but not what the result means. Gah. My old English teacher must be spinning in his grave…

  17. F.O. says

    @Walter Solomon #1: you seem to be convinced that some messiah will save us, be that AOC or Greta Thunberg.

    Without diminishing any of the talent and accomplishments of either woman, have you considered that maybe we should stop hoping for messiahs?

  18. R. L. Foster says

    I find it interesting that the year 2100 is often given as the year when things get really, really bad. All the while eliding over what may happen between now and then. It’s like telling the patient she has 6 months to live as if the intervening months are going to be of the same quality her normal life was. There’s usually a hell of a lot of suffering before the end finally comes. The next 80 years could suck in ways hard for us to imagine.

  19. stroppy says

    We’re already paying the price. It’s just that the AGW signal is fuzzy in shorter time frames when seen against a natural background, which means people feel they can ignore it.

    Not the best analogy, but it’s like asking how many people are dead from Covid because of Donald Trump. It’s hard to put a firm number on it, but it’s probably thousands, maybe tens of thousands, or possibly more. There’s no exact number so Trump walks free, and who knows, he may even become president again.

    Because stupid.

  20. davidc1 says

    Wasn’t there a plan by them Arabs to tow a dirty great ice berg to the middle east to solve their
    water problem ?
    @24 According to a article in The Guardian he is pooing himself over the investigation into the Capital
    attack,seems he is shocked to find that he doesn’t have the power he used to have when he was POTUS.

  21. Dunc says

    In the short term, it only increases the rate of current global sea level rise by 25%.

    No, it increases the contribution of the Thwaites glacier to global sea level rise by 25%. It increases the total rate of global sea level rise by 1%.

    On the other hand, if the entire glacier was going to collapse immenently, that would (temporarily) increase the rate of global sea level rise by nearly 2000% (the whole glacier is worth about 65cm of global SLR, say “collapse immenently” means over 10 years, versus the current annual SLR rate of 3.4mm). That’s why it’s important to make the distinction cervantes was making @ #7, which people apparently have decided means he’s downplaying the issue… I mean, what’s 4 orders of magnitude between friends, eh?

    Yes, it’s very, very bad news – but if the entire glacier was about to go, that would be so far beyond bad news that you couldn’t see it with a telescope. And if our prior understanding of the issue was that badly wrong, then there really would be absolutely no point trying to do anything about it, which is (presumably) the exact opposite of the message that people are hoping we should take from this.

  22. stroppy says

    @ 25
    Indeed, although pooing is a relatively constant state with him and part of a pattern. He makes a mess and then throws scary tantrums until others clean it up for him. Expect stonewalling, foot dragging, deflecting, dodging, burning, yelling, posturing, frivolous law suits, propaganda, and general delaying in the hopes that people will become exhausted while the political environment changes and people’s attention is focused elsewhere.

    @ 26
    “…which people apparently have decided means he’s downplaying the issue…”
    The old dilemma of how to communicate the science of climate change to people…

  23. says

    Many people apparently misconstrued what I wrote. Of course climate change and sea level rise are already affecting people. I only corrected the specific inaccurate reporting that the Thwaites glacier was about to collapse. In fact even if the movement of the glacier accelerates when the ice shelf is gone, it will contribute only an additional .0001 to the rate of sea level rise and it will take centuries for the glacier to disappear. So that isn’t really going to affect anyone alive today, not appreciably.

  24. unclefrogy says

    you say that people misconstrue what you said about then you minimize it right after saying we misconstrue???
    you must be the kind of guy who would say it is only one mouse or one roach don’t worry they wont be that much trouble.
    like roaches and mice all the glaciers are in varying degree doing the same f’g thing all of them If there are any that are growing I am sure that they must be very rare and probably the result of a temporary effect.
    It is ridiculous to look at one event and think that means any thing.
    Like the Senator who “proved there was no global warming by bring in a snow ball.”
    the thwaits glacier is a large data point with some significance and not something to look at in isolation.
    a the rate we are going I do not have the confidence that it will take centuries for it to vanish maybe but by then most of the coastal cities of today will all ready be drowned or moved and the population problem will have worked out its own solution.

  25. stroppy says


    “…you must be the kind of guy…” ref. (@28)

    I don’t think so. I believe Cervantes was making a scientific point without political context, which is why it sounds ambiguous or possibly pedantic. Like they say, what we have here is a failure to communicate. Know your audience.

  26. unclefrogy says

    it is not the science statistics proportion of sea level rise that is the “G****”M” problem that is nit picking
    it is the last statement that betrays the problem
    ““So it’s bad news, but won’t much affect anyone alive today.”
    why say that if you are not trying to minimize anything? So it does not matter to anyone alive today?
    the point of the “news” about the glacier is that even in the south things are changing and the rate of change seems to be accelerating.

  27. stroppy says

    Yes, I agree. However, a sore point is that news coverage is often misleading. For instance, I just saw an interview with Bill Nye (who’s usually pretty good) that left the impression to a casual viewer, that a Thwaite collapse was immanent and in and of itself catastrophic. He didn’t say it explicitly, but he didn’t exactly not say it either, where he could have said it was like a canary in a coal mine and then tied it to larger implications of where we actually are compared to where we thought we were.


    “So it’s bad news, but won’t much affect anyone alive today.”

    Personally, I wouldn’t have said that, but if I felt I had to say it, I would have said something like:
    “So it’s bad news, but in and of itself, and absent the unexpected acceleration of all the other effects of climate change, it wouldn’t much affect anyone alive today.”

    Maybe it’s just me. I’m viewing this keeping in mind discussions I’ve followed among climate scientists about how to talk about climate change. There are legitimate differences of opinion that are fraught in ways that you don’t really see in other areas of science, with I think good reason.

  28. unclefrogy says

    just why would anyone want to say that? there ain’t no in and of itself and there is no absence of acceleration. that is just more of the same BS that has led to where we are today

  29. stroppy says

    I think their comment, while somewhat out of place here, probably would have been fine on a site like where they get into the weeds.