How much, how fast? A science review and outlook for research on the instability of Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier in the 21st century

T. A. Scambos, R. E. Bell, R. B. Alley, S. Anandakrishnan, D. H. Bromwich, K. Brunt, K. Christianson, T. Creyts, S. B. Das, R. DeConto, P. Dutrieux, H. A. Fricker, D. Holland, J. MacGregor, B. Medley, J. P. Nicolas, D. Pollard, M. R. Siegfried, A. M. Smith, E. J. SteigL. D. Trusel, D. G. Vaughan, P. L. Yager

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Constraining how much and how fast the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) will change in the coming decades has recently been identified as the highest priority in Antarctic research (National Academies, 2015). Here we review recent research on WAIS and outline further scientific objectives for the area now identified as the most likely to undergo near-term significant change: Thwaites Glacier and the adjacent Amundsen Sea. Multiple lines of evidence point to an ongoing rapid loss of ice in this region in response to changing atmospheric and oceanic conditions. Models of the ice sheet's dynamic behavior indicate a potential for greatly accelerated ice loss as ocean-driven melting at the Thwaites Glacier grounding zone and nearby areas leads to thinning, faster flow, and retreat. A complete retreat of the Thwaites Glacier basin would raise global sea level by more than three meters by entraining ice from adjacent catchments. This scenario could occur over the next few centuries, and faster ice loss could occur through processes omitted from most ice flow models such as hydrofracture and ice cliff failure, which have been observed in recent rapid ice retreats elsewhere. Increased basal melt at the grounding zone and increased potential for hydrofracture due to enhanced surface melt could initiate a more rapid collapse of Thwaites Glacier within the next few decades.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)16-34
Number of pages19
JournalGlobal and Planetary Change
StatePublished - Jun 1 2017


  • Climate change
  • Ice-ocean interaction
  • Marine ice sheet instability
  • Sea-level rise
  • Thwaites Glacier
  • West Antarctic Ice Sheet

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Oceanography


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