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The Race to Understand Antarctica’s Most Terrifying Glacier

Wired: “Few places in Antarctica are more difficult to reach than Thwaites Glacier, a Florida-sized hunk of frozen water that meets the Amundsen Sea about 800 miles west of McMurdo. Until a decade ago, barely any scientists had ever set foot there, and the glacier’s remoteness, along with its reputation for bad weather, ensured that it remained poorly understood. Yet within the small community of people who study ice for a living, Thwaites has long been the subject of dark speculation. If this mysterious glacier were to “go bad”—glaciologist-­speak for the process by which a glacier breaks down into icebergs and eventually collapses into the ocean—it might be more than a scientific curiosity. Indeed, it might be the kind of event that changes the course of civilization…Glaciers like Thwaites that terminate in the ocean tend to follow a familiar pattern of collapse. At first, water gnaws at the ice shelf from below, causing it to weaken and thin. Rather than sitting securely on the seafloor, it begins to float, like a beached ship lifted off the sand. This exposes even more of its underside to the water, and the weakening and thinning continue. The shelf, now too fragile to support its own weight, starts snapping off into the sea in enormous chunks. More ice flows down from the glacier’s interior, replenishing what has been lost, and the whole cycle starts over again: melt, thin, break, retreat; melt, thin, break, retreat…”

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