The fate of the Thwaites could have serious repercussions for our planet.
Today, the glacier occupies a deep ocean basin. If it retreats "substantially," Nitsche cautions that "ocean water would enter that basin. The surrounding ice including other glaciers would start flowing into this basin and start thinning as well."
Granted, as Nitsche explains, the melting process would take hundreds of years "if not more than a thousand" to unfold. But that's no excuse for inaction on our part — especially because the loss of the Thwaites might also cost us a huge percentage of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
"If the Thwaites Glacier is lost entirely this will cause global mean sea level to rise by 25.6 inches [65 centimeters]," Larter tells us. He also says that if "all the adjoining parts of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet where the ice bed is below sea level are lost," there'll be a global mean sea level increase of nearly 11 feet, or 3.3 meters.
Even so, maybe the Thwaites doesn't deserve its apocalyptic nickname.
"I don't like the term 'doomsday glacier,'" says Nitsche. In his view, the word "doomsday" implies that we can't take any proactive steps to slow the glacier's retreat.
Actually, we can. Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions could go a long way toward preserving the Thwaites — for a while, at least.
"It will take a lot of time (hundreds of years) to melt all the ice of Thwaites Glacier, but it will happen faster if we continue to heat up the planet quickly and much slower if we managed to drastically limit the warming of the planet," Nitsche observes. "So we might have some influence on how quickly this would happen and how much time we have to adapt or mitigate potential effects."