"Disturbing" discovery: Giant hole found under Antarctica glacier

Scientists from NASA have discovered a very big cavity, nearly 300 metres tall, growing at the bottom of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, indicating acceleration in rising global sea levels due to climate change.

The agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory used ice-penetrating radar to explore the area beneath the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, often called "one of the world's most risky glaciers" because its melting could significantly contribute to sea level rise.

Rignot and fellow researchers discovered the cavity using ice-penetrating radar as part of NASA's Operation IceBridge, with additional data supplied by German and French scientists.

The pocket is a sign of "rapid decay" and just one of "several disturbing discoveries" made recently regarding the glacier, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a news release Wednesday.

"Thanks to a new generation of satellites, we can finally see the detail", he said.

"[The size of] a cavity under a glacier plays an important role in melting", study lead researcher Pietro Milillo, a scientist at the Radar Science and Engineering Section at JPL, said in the statement.

The NASA-led team were surprised by the size of the cavity, which once contained 14 billion tons of ice.

"As more heat and water get under the glacier, it melts faster".

Thwaites has been described as one of the world's most risky glaciers because its demise could lead to rapid changes in global sea levels.

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The Thwaites Glacier actually holds in neighbouring glaciers and ice masses further inland. If all of the ice melted, the world's ocean level would rise over two feet.

In this region, as the tide rises and falls, the grounding line retreats and advances across a zone of about three to five kilometres.

Despite this stable rate of grounding-line retreat, the melt rate on this side of the glacier is extremely high.

However, there's been more retreat than advancement as of late.

Different processes at various parts of the 160-kilometer-long front of the glacier are putting the rates of grounding-line retreat and of ice loss out of sync, NASA said.

Despite this high rate of retreat, melt rates are still higher on the western side, where the void is located.

"Understanding the details of how the ocean melts away this glacier is essential to project [ing] its impact on sea level rise in the coming decades", Rignot said.

Milillo told weather.com that the discovery was also surprising because "it highlights that ice-ocean interactions are more complex than previously understood".

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