Please stop calling it the "glacier of the apocalypse"

Please stop calling it the “glacier of the apocalypse”

Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier, the largest on the planet, is in trouble.

The glacier extends into the Southern Ocean and loses around 50 billion tons of ice per year, with that loss doubling in the past 30 years. In 2019, NASA scientists discovered a huge cavity under the glacier, about two-thirds the size of Manhattan, which could accelerate the glacier’s disappearance. 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 kick could hasten its retreat once again.

It’s worrying. If Thwaites melts, sea levels would rise about 25 inches. Its disappearance could also destabilize the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which blocks about 10 feet of sea level rise. That kind of melting would be catastrophic.

With each new study, we learn more about Thwaites’ vulnerability. And with each new study, we see Thwaites returning to the news cycle, thanks in large part to his powerful and alarming nickname: the “Doomsday Glacier.”

But that moniker, while it generated mountains of press exploring Thwaites’ plight, might actually do more harm than good. It’s a nickname that glaciologists and scientists are hesitant to use – so why is it so prevalent in the mainstream press? Should we continue to use it? And why is it important?

Doom and dark

On May 9, 2017, Rolling Stone published a deeply researched and brilliantly written article on Thwaites by climate writer Jeff Goodell. It had a simple and powerful title: The Doomsday Glacier. It’s perfect for the story. And the nickname stuck.

Today, publications repeat the line ad nauseam every time a major new study on Thwaites comes out. Some stories suggest that Thwaites is known as the Doomsday Glacier in “science circles” because its disintegration could lead to a catastrophic sea level rise of more than three to 10 feet. This is not quite the case.

We don’t know for sure how the Thwaites decay would change sea levels in the near term. The glacier itself encloses about 25 inches of sea level rise, but most stories use the 3-10 foot range. This actually refers to the loss of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

And while extensive research shows that Thwaites is in trouble, it’s not scientists, glaciologists or polar experts who are tossing around the moniker. I spoke with a number of experts associated with glaciology and polar research who all pointed out that the fate of Thwaites is of growing concern. However, most had mixed feelings about the apocalyptic moniker, with many opposing the use of the title.

“I discourage the use of the term ‘Doomsday Glacier’ to refer to Thwaites Glacier,” said Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a member of the Thwaites Glacier Collaboration. Scambos suggested that “joker glacier” or “riskiest glacier” could be used instead.

One of the main reasons why scientists feel uncomfortable with this phrase is that it suggests that we are already doomed. “We’re not,” said Eric Rignot, an Earth scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The catastrophic narrative feeds the feeling that we have already passed the point of no return, that Thwaites is already lost, which can, more broadly, lead to inaction. The nickname gives us the wrong idea.

“That’s a little too alarmist,” noted Helen Fricker, a glaciologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Rignot said we could still slow Thwaites’ retreat if we take proper climate action, but “time is running out.” It’s a little less serious than the apocalypse, of course.

Another reason “apocalypse” might not be a great nickname is because it obscures the larger problem facing frozen areas of Earth: the “cryosphere.” Human-induced climate change and the burning of fossil fuels have caused ice to recede all over the planet.

“On the one hand, it’s a wake-up call, which is to take these things seriously,” Rignot said. “On the other hand, it sums up the situation as if there is only one bad glacier there.”

Rignot explains that there are glaciers around the world – in East Antarctica and Greenland, for example – that lock up a lot more water. Whether those were to decay and disappear, the sea level rise could be an order of magnitude greater than what we could see with Thwaites.

A study published this week in Nature Geoscience, led by marine geophysicist Alastair Graham and co-authored by glaciologist Robert Larter of the British Antarctic Survey, shows how precarious the situation is and how much faster Thwaites could retreat than expected . But even Larter avoids using the word “apocalypse”.

That’s not to say Thwaites isn’t important.

“Thwaites is obviously not the only glacier that matters, but it is objectively the most concerning glacier on Earth in terms of its potential to generate large amounts of sea level rise in the future,” said said Andrew Mackintosh, glaciologist at Monash University.

So should we continue to use “Doomsday Glacier”?

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The Vanderford Glacier in East Antarctica is little studied.

Jackson Ryan/CBS

You can’t always get what you want

In September 2021, coronavirus cases were increasing in South Africa. Scientists began detecting a variant of the virus dubbed C.1.2, with a number of mutations, a finding that quickly found its way to the press via preprint studies.

Although the new variant represents only 5% of new cases, some publications have jumped on the news, describing the variant as “worse than delta” and calling it the apocalyptic variant.

Doomsday, it seems, can be brought on by many different sources.

The coronavirus scenario is an interesting comparison. By the time the 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 bit different. Scientists are concerned about his future. Things are getting worse. Doomsday, in this case, helps draw attention to the plight of the glacier and may help to understand just 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 states that it is also known as Doomsday Glacier.

“There’s no getting ahead of the label,” Scambos said. “On the plus side, the public is now familiar with the area because of the power of the nickname.”

So while scientists might not feel great about it, we might just be stuck with it. We simply can’t let this hide the fact that there are many glaciers at risk and the threat is us: if we don’t wean ourselves off fossil fuels, we will continue to increase carbon dioxide in the world. atmosphere and cause the death of Thwaites. disappearance.

And the real doomsday will not be Thwaites’ doom. This will be the case when we disrupt areas like East Antarctica, which locks in meters of sea level. If this sheet were lost, it would dramatically change the face of the Earth. Fricker says it’s not a future that will come to pass any time soon, but if we start to see dramatic changes to this ice cap, that’s when we’re in for real trouble.

“It’s the apocalypse,” she said.

Correction, Sept. 7 at 3:47 a.m. PT: This article originally misstated who was leading the Nature Geoscience article. The main author is Alastair Graham.


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