A Doomsday Glacier?

The alarmist headline of a recent article for the Rolling Stone magazine amuses me. It is entitled “The Fuse has been Blown, and the Doomsday Glacier is Headed for Us All.” This headline is a dramatic exaggeration. Yes, it is true–there is a fissure in an ice sheet on the Thwaites Glacier that scientists think is going to collapse within 3-5 years. And this collapse will likely cause sea level to rise by over 2 feet. But how soon sea levels rise that much is anybody’s guess because statistical models vary widely. Potentially, a sea level rise of this magnitude could inundate cities such as Miami, New York City, and New Orleans; but this change would likely take as long as a century, giving society plenty of time to respond. The glacier is not coming for us all.

At the present time warm salty ocean currents are flowing under the edge of the Thwaites Glacier, located in Western Antarctica. This warm current is melting the Ice Sheet, and this causes the discharge of icebergs. Scientists say the Thwaites Glacier alone already contributes to 4% of global sea level rise. When the Ice Sheet eventually collapses, thousands of icebergs will be discharged shortly after the collapse. However, this won’t directly cause sea level rise because this ice shelf is already floating on the water. Scientists fear the advance of the rest of the Thwaites Glacier (now on land) into the ocean is the mechanism that will cause dramatic sea level rise. Scientists can only guess how long this advance will take and how long it takes for the addition of this ice to raise sea levels.

Location of the Thwaites Glacier
Aerial photograph shows a massive ice shelf about to break off from the Thwaites glacier. Image from the New York Times.
Illustration showing how warm salty currents are undermining the ice shelf.

While researching information for this blog entry, I came across a comically contrarian editorial written by H. Sterling Burnett, of The Heartland Institute, a thinktank funded by oil companies to downplay the dangers of global warming. Dr. Burnett is a PHD, but he is deliberately dishonest or stupid. He notes temperatures in Antarctica have been stable for over 40 years and concludes there is no threat of sea level rise from the Thwaites Glacier because ice on the continent is not melting. He fails to understand or acknowledge the mechanism that could cause sea level to rise. It’s not temperatures on the continent but rather warm ocean currents undermining the edge of the glacier that could cause sea level rise. Dr. Burnett is simply a stooge for business crooks.

Photo of Burnett (from his editorial) and an excerpt from his column, demonstrating his ignorance of the mechanism that scientists fear will cause sea level rise. Burnett is paid to write propaganda for oil companies. His editorial downplaying scientists’ concern about the Thwaites Glacier is either deliberately dishonest or stupid.


Goodell, P.

“The Fuse has been Blown, and the Doomsday Glacier is Coming for Us All”

Rolling Stone 2021

Kahn, J.

“The Doomsday Glacier is in Danger of Collapse Potentially Ominous News for Cities like New York, New Orleans, and Miami”

Fortune December 2021

Wahlen, A.K. et. al.

“Pathways and Modifications of Warm Water Flowing Beneath the Thwaites Ice Shelf, West Antarctica”

Science Advances April 5, 2021


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