Scientists call it the doomsday glacier.
This is partly because the Thwaites, a Britain-sized glacier in western Antarctica, is melting at an alarming rate: it is retreating about half a mile (2,625 feet) a year. Scientists estimate that the glacier will lose all of its ice in about 200 to 600 years. When this happens, it will raise the sea level by about 0.5 meters (1.6-2 feet).
But the sea level rise does not stop there. Thwaites' nickname derives mainly what would happen after he melted.
At the moment, the glacier acts as a buffer between warming the sea and other glaciers. Its collapse could bring neighboring masses of ice in western Antarctica with it. Taken together, this process would raise sea levels by almost 10 feet, permanently submerging many coastal areas, including parts of New York City, Miami and the Netherlands.
"It's a big change, a rewrite the coast," said David Holland, a professor of atmospheric science at New York University who contributes research for the Thwaites Glacier International Collaboration, to PBS NewsHour in February.
This moth, two new studies added details to the alarming picture. Research published last week in the Cryosphere newspaper found that hot ocean currents may be eating away at the weak point of the Thwaites glacier.
A study published on Monday, however, used satellite images to show that sections of Thwaites and its neighbor, the Pine Island Glacier, are breaking up more quickly than previously thought. This work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The images below reveal what is happening with nearby Thwaites and glaciers, along with what may happen in the future.
The thawing of the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers is already responsible for about 5% of the global rise in sea level.
It's not just the Thwaites: Antarctica's ice sheet is melting six times faster than it was in the 1980s. It is losing 252 billion tons a year, up 40 billion tons a year 40 years ago.
If the entire Antarctic ice sheet were to melt, scientists estimate that sea levels would rise by 200 feet (60 meters).
"What the satellites are showing us is a glacier crumbling at the seams," Ted Scambos, a senior scientist at the University of Colorado, told NASA in February.
This rapid meltdown is happening in part because the natural buffers that keep the Thwaites and Pine glaciers in place are breaking, according to new research.
Cracks such as those on the Pine Island glacier above form close to the shear margins of the glaciers: areas the glacier ice meets the ice or rock that moves more slowly, which keeps it contained.
The new PNAS study found that the shear margins on Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers are weakening and breaking, which can cause ice to flow into the ocean.
The imminent loss of the Thwaites glacier is so worrying that the United States and the United Kingdom have created an international agency to study it.
That organization, the International Collaboration Thwaites Glacier, studies the glacier using icebreaker ships that can break through thick layers of ice.
In February, researchers found a cavity almost the size of Manhattan at the bottom of Thwaites.
The cavity, which NASA scientists found using ice-penetrating radar in 2019, could contain 14 billion tons of ice.
The diagram below shows how the hot underwater currents move under the glacier, slowly melting the bottom up.
When the ice sheets melt underneath, they can lose their structure, causing them to melt even faster and disintegrate in the ocean, as Thwaites is doing.
The researchers calculated that the Pine Island glacier has lost an area the size of Los Angeles in the past six years.
"These are the first signs that we see that the Pine Island ice shelf is disappearing," Stef Lhermitte, a satellite expert and lead author of the PNAS study, told the Washington Post.
"This damage is difficult to heal."
Rising sea levels could affect up to 800 million people by 2050, according to a 2018 report.
The report, the C40 Cities climate network, found that rising sea levels could threaten the energy supply for 470 million people and regularly expose 1.6 billion people to extremely high temperatures.
This article was originally published by Business Insider.