Global warming may not be the only thing melting the Thwaites glacier; geothermal heat could be contributing the rapid melting.
These findings alter the understanding of the conditions below the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, a University of Texas at Austin news release reported.
The glacier is believed to be on the way to collapse, but further modeling is needed to determine when that collapse will begin and at what rate it will decline.
A research team used radar techniques to determine how the water flowed under the ice sheets, allowing them to look at melting rates. They found geothermal heat sources are distributed over a larger area than was previously believed.
This geothermal heat is a huge contributor to the melting on the underside of the glacier.
Past models have suggested the water flows under the ice in a uniform fashion, similar to a "pancake griddle." This new research suggests it is more like a "multi-burner stove" that distributes heat at different locations
"It's the most complex thermal environment you might imagine," co-author Don Blankenship, a senior research scientist at UTIG and Schroeder's Ph.D. adviser, said in the news release. "And then you plop the most critical dynamically unstable ice sheet on planet Earth in the middle of this thing, and then you try to model it. It's virtually impossible."
The glacier is considered to be the "gateway" to West Antarctica's "potential sea level contribution," the news release reported.
Researchers believe if the Thwaites glacier collapsed it would cause a sea-level rise of between one and two meters globally; if the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet Collapsed it could double that sea level rise.
"The combination of variable subglacial geothermal heat flow and the interacting subglacial water system could threaten the stability of Thwaites Glacier in ways that we never before imagined," Schroeder said.