Antarctica is not in good shape. In just a few decades, the continent has lost trillions of tons of ice with alarming rates that we can not track, even in places we once thought were safe.
Now a stunning new void is discovered in the midst of this massive disappearance act, and that's great: the huge cavity that grows below West Antarctica said scientists say it covers two-thirds of Manhattan's print and stands nearly 300 feet (984 ft) high.
This huge hole at the bottom of the Thwaites glacier – a massively infamous one called the "most dangerous glacier in the world" – is so large that it represents an open piece of the estimated 252 billion tons of ice that Antarctica loses every year.
Researchers say the cavity would be large enough to keep about 14 billion tons of ice. More troublesome, researchers say they have lost most of that ice volume only in the last three years.
"For years we have suspected that Thwaites is not firmly bound to the foundation underneath it," says glacier Eric Rignot of the University of California, Irvine, and NASA's Jet Propulsion (JPL) laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
"Thanks to the new generation of satellites, we can finally see the details."
Rignot and his colleagues explored the cavity with radar penetrating through ice as part of NASA's IceBridge operation, with additional data submitted by German and French scientists.
According to the readings, the hidden void is just one ice sacrifice among the "complex pattern of ice retreatment and melting" that takes place at the Thwaites glacier, whose sectors are pulled by as many as 800 meters each year.
The complex pattern that new readings reveal – which does not fit into current ice sheets or ocean models – suggest scientists learn more about how water and ice interact with each other in ice but warming the antarctic environment.
"We detect different withdrawal mechanisms," explains the first author of the new article, JPL radar scientist Pietro Milillo.
While researchers are still learning new things about the complex ways of melting ice on the Thwaite glacier, in its most basic, giant cavity, it is a simple (if unfortunate) scientific reality.
"[The size of] the cavity beneath the glacier plays an important role in melting, Milillo says.
"As more heat and water penetrate under the glacier, it melts faster."
This is important to know because Thwaites currently makes about 4 percent of the global sea level rise.
If it was completely gone, the ice in the glacier could lift the ocean for an estimated 65 centimeters. But that is not even the worst possible scenario.
Glacier Thwaites actually holds in adjacent glaciers and ice masses further inland. If its supportive force disappears, the consequences could be unthinkable, which is why it is considered to be the central natural structure of the Antarctic landscape.
How long will it last, nobody knows – which is why scientists are now on a big expedition to learn more about Thwaites.
What will be found remains to be seen, but it is undoubtedly one of the most important scientific researches currently being carried out in the world.
As the geologist from New York, David Holland, who was not involved in the current study, said Washington Post Last year: "For the global sea level change in the next century, this glacier Thwaites is almost the whole story."
Findings are recorded in Scientific progress.