UT researchers find geothermal heat is causing Antarctic glacier to melt

Christina Noriega

Warm ocean waters are not the only factor leading to glacier erosion. According to a UT study published Monday, unusual amounts of geothermal heat are causing Antarctic glaciers to melt from below.

The UT Institute of Geophysics team spearheaded by recent geological sciences graduate Dustin Schroeder and senior research scientist Donald Blankenship studied the heat currents affecting Thwaites Glacier, one of the fastest disappearing glaciers in the world.

“Thwaites isn’t just any glacier,” Blankenship said. “It is the one glacier in the world that everybody believes has the most potential to raise the sea levels quickly when it goes away.”

A University of Washington report released in May estimated sea levels could rise four feet. When the Thwaites Glacier will erode is still uncertain, as the report’s estimates range from 200 years to 1,000 years. Schroeder said his research can help scientists form better models for estimates and determine the rates of sea level increases.

“When it comes to preparing for the effect of sea level rising — which is one of the most important effects of climate change — you really would want to know whether it’s 100 or thousands of years, so our results are also part of the story,” Schroeder said.

According to Blankenship, tectonic shifts spanning more than 100 million years have forced the Earth’s crust to lift, creating unusual levels of volcanic activity that are heating the 13,000-foot thick glacier. While the average heat flow is less than 65 milliwatts per square meter on the rest of the continents, heat currents underneath Thwaites Glacier have peaked at 200 milliwatts per square meter.

Blankenship said a rise in sea levels could greatly affect Texas’ coastline, particularly centers of the petrochemical industry, such as Beaumont and Houston.

“That’s why it matters when people argue whether the sea level is going to change 50 centimeters in a century, or a meter,” Blankenship said. “If people are replacing infrastructure for a sea level change and the sea level change is twice that much, then their nice investment that was supposed to last 50 years lasts only 25 years. Then it becomes a problem.”

David Adelman, a law professor who teaches climate change policy and environmental law, said despite Texas’ resistance to federal environmental regulation, cities such as Houston have been more receptive to policy changes. He said that the daily effects of climate change, not research, will affect policies in Texas. 

“It’s things like the West Texas drought continuing as severe as it is, or cities like San Angelo have to start trucking in water. It’s the actual evidence on the ground gradually accruing that will probably change public opinion and the politics of the state,” Adelman said.