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  • Denis Pepin

El Niño Triggered Decades of Melting in Antarctica's "Doomsday Glacier"

Updated: Mar 31

A captivating scene unfolds before our eyes: a massive, jagged glacier stands resolute in the center, its icy peaks reaching for the sky. The glacier is surrounded by calm waters, dotted with smaller ice fragments. As the sun descends, its golden rays kiss the glacier’s surface, casting a warm glow. Beyond, snow-capped mountains frame this breathtaking tableau, their majesty a testament to nature’s grandeur.
In this hauntingly beautiful scene, the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ in Antarctica bears witness to the relentless effects of El Niño-triggered melting. As the sun dips below the horizon, its golden rays illuminate the fractured ice, revealing the glacier’s vulnerability. Despite the transient nature of El Niño, its legacy endures in the ongoing retreat of these colossal ice formations. The Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers continue their inexorable journey toward dissolution, a stark reminder of our planet’s delicate balance.

The Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, often dubbed the "Doomsday Glacier," has earned its ominous nickname due to its potential to destabilize and contribute significantly to rising sea levels. While the current rate of melt is concerning, a new study reveals a surprising culprit that may have initiated this process decades ago: El Niño, a cyclical climate phenomenon.


Published in the journal PNAS, the research, led by the University of Houston, sheds light on the glacier's history using sediment cores collected from seven locations near Thwaites and its neighboring Pine Island Glacier. These cores act like time capsules, containing layers of sediment deposited over thousands of years. By analyzing the composition and properties of these layers, scientists can reconstruct past environmental conditions.


The team specifically focused on isotopes, variations of elements with slightly different atomic masses. These isotopes act as natural tracers, revealing changes in factors like water temperature and ice sheet stability. By measuring the ratio of specific oxygen isotopes within the sediment layers, the researchers were able to pinpoint a significant shift in the early 1940s.



This shift, they argue, coincides with a particularly strong El Niño event. El Niño is characterized by warmer than usual sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. While its primary effects are felt in weather patterns around the globe, it can also influence distant regions like Antarctica through complex atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns.


The researchers believe that the 1940s El Niño event likely brought warmer ocean currents towards the base of Thwaites and Pine Island Glaciers. This influx of warmer water may have begun to eat away at the underwater portions of the glaciers, initiating a process known as basal melt.


While the El Niño event itself was short-lived, lasting only a few years, the study suggests the damage it inflicted on these glaciers was long-lasting. Once triggered, the basal melt process appears to have become self-sustaining, continuing even after the initial El Niño influence subsided.


"It is significant that El Niño only lasted a couple of years, but the two glaciers, Thwaites and Pine Island, remain in significant retreat," says geologist Julia Wellner, lead author of the study, highlighting the concerning aspect of this discovery. "Once the system is kicked out of balance, the retreat is ongoing."


This finding has significant implications for our understanding of ice sheet stability and future sea level rise. It suggests that even seemingly short-term climate events can trigger long-term changes in vast ice sheets, with potentially far-reaching consequences.


The study also emphasizes the importance of studying past climate events to understand and predict future changes. By looking back in time, scientists can gain valuable insights into the sensitivity of ice sheets to various climate forcings, such as a warming ocean.


However, it's crucial to remember that this study focuses on a specific region and time period. While it sheds light on the potential role of El Niño in initiating Thwaites' retreat, it doesn't paint the whole picture. Other factors, such as long-term atmospheric warming and changes in ocean circulation, likely also play a significant role in the ongoing melt.


Furthermore, the study doesn't necessarily imply that future El Niño events will have the same effect. The complex interplay between climate phenomena and ice sheet dynamics is constantly evolving, making it difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the future.


Despite these limitations, the study offers valuable insights into the intricate relationship between climate and ice sheets. It serves as a reminder of the delicate balance at play in these polar regions and the potential for seemingly distant events to have lasting consequences. As we continue to grapple with the challenges of climate change, understanding the long-term legacies of past events like El Niño becomes increasingly important for informing future actions and strategies.



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