Scientists Think A Giant Artificial Wall Propped Up Under Antarctica's Ice Sheets Could Stop Catastrophic Sea Level Rise

The Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is seen from above. NASA 

In the 20th century, sea levels around the globe rose about six inches on average, Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences at Princeton, said during a media briefing earlier this year on sea level rise. That

was enough to narrow the typical East Coast beach by about 50 feet.

Since the mid-1990s, places like Miami have seen an additional five inches of sea level rise. Seas rise faster in some places than others, due to ocean currents and the effects of gravity.

Several factors contribute to global sea level rise. As the world has warmed due to the burning of fossil fuels, oceans have absorbed the majority of the heat. Warmer water expands, which takes up more space.

Glaciers are also melting, adding more water to the system. The final factor is melting from ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland that are still protected by glaciers.

Over the course of several years, turbulent water overflow from a large melt lake carved this 60-foot deep canyon. Ian Joughin

Propping up the ice

According to the recent study, we could try to build up support structures or even walls underneath the ice sheets to prevent them from breaking apart or being weakened by the influx of warm water from below. 

Wolovick and Moore have been researching this concept for several years now. In their new study, they calculated how likely it would be that ice sheet engineering could avoid the collapse of the Thwaites Glacier. It's an especially challenging glacier because of its extreme width, which means it would need a large support structure.

The first method of propping up the glacier modeled by the study authors is sticking a series of thousand-foot mounds underneath it. While this wouldn't block warm water from flowing beneath the ice, the mounds would help support the glacier, making collapse less likely and giving it a chance to regrow.

Even this "simpler" method would be a massive undertaking — "comparable to the largest civil engineering projects that humanity has ever attempted," the authors wrote, like digging the Suez Canal but in a much harsher environment.

The authors calculated that this approach would have a 30% chance of preventing the collapse of the Thwaites Glacier — which could trigger the loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet — for the next 1,000 years.

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