By Adam Vaughan
“YOU are very aware that if something goes wrong, it goes very wrong very quickly,” says Joanne Johnson, speaking from her tent near Thwaites glacier in one of the remotest parts of Antarctica. At the time, she and three colleagues were alone, more than 1600 kilometres from the nearest research station. Strong winds had pounded them and it had snowed heavily, making the terrain even more perilous. On the bright side, it was mercifully mild, at -5°C.
Until now, fewer than 50 people have been to this part of West Antarctica, less than have been to space. By the end of this month, 100 will have visited. The reason why is simple: Thwaites is a potential climate time bomb that we need to learn much more about.
This vast glacier is about the size of Great Britain. While it has been shrinking since the early 1990s, ice loss has almost doubled over the past 20 years. It is shedding a dizzying 35 billion tonnes a year. On its own, its collapse would raise seas by around 65 centimetres. That is worrying enough in the context of the 19-cm rise in the whole of the 20th century. But the bigger worry is that this glacier buttresses the entire West Antarctic ice sheet. If Thwaites goes, the fear is it will trigger a wider collapse of ice – enough to raise seas by a calamitous 3.3 metres within a few hundred years.
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