Scientists have known for years that subglacial volcanoes and other geothermal “hotspots” are contributing to the melting of the Thwaites Glacier. Why did the BBC fail to mention these facts in its recent report?
The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration is performing some magnificent science, conducting the most ambitious fieldwork ever undertaken at the tip of what is one of the most significant glaciers on Earth. Its melting already contributes 4% of global sea level rise and there are fears that it could become unstable and contribute many metres to global sea level.
The reason for its vulnerability lies in its geology. While most of the glacier is on ground and making its way into the West Antarctic seas, Thwaites lip floats on water allowing warm water to weaken and melt it from beneath. Being one of the most difficult places in the world to reach the scientific collaboration planned for years to transport many tonnes of equipment to the glaciers front. Two weeks ago they announced they had carried out the first warm water borehole through the ice at the point where it lifts off the land and starts to be suspended by the ocean. Image courtesy British Antarctic Survey.
Reports by the mainstream media from the region have in general been very good in explaining the problem, the science and the difficulties of getting there and working in such a harsh environment (see e.g. here, here and here). It is extremely difficult to do this. There have been many recent reports concerning the increasing focus on Thwaites glacier and the uncertainties and projections have been deftly handled.
Sometimes however what is not mentioned in a report is important.
The significance of the melting of the Thwaites and the adjacent Pine Island glaciers is acknowledged as is the potential influence of warm water at the coast. However, the BBC’s latest report (and here) does not mention an important fact that is widely known and that it and others have reported previously – the influence of active volcanoes beneath the glacier.
Despite claims about climate change and admonition to lower our greenhouse gas emission as a way to ameliorate the melting of Thwaites, it should have been pointed out that what is happening underneath the glacier could be in large parts an act of geology and one of those natural and globally-important dynamics that have been occurring throughout the ages.
What is more, the scientists will remain on Thwaites for a while yet. They have not analysed their data yet, so claims that they have confirmed “the Thwaites glacier is melting even faster than scientists thought…” are premature.
Not every thing that changes dramatically, or has the potential to do so, is solely or mainly down to mankind’s effect on the environment. Despite our influences we have always lived in a natural world that is changing constantly and by itself. Researchers have suggested Thwaites may change dramatically in the next few decades and centuries to come or even longer. It could result in a significant rise in global sea levels. But calling it a “Doomsday” glacier is unjustified and simply doom-mongering.