Nevertheless, the heat flow could be a crucial factor that needs to be considered when it comes to the future of Thwaites Glacier. According to Gohl: “Large amounts of geothermal heat can, for example, lead to the bottom of the glacier bed no longer freezing completely or to a constant film of water forming on its surface. Both of which would result in the ice masses sliding more easily over the ground. If, in addition, the braking effect of the ice shelf is lost, as can currently be observed in West Antarctica, the glaciers’ flow could accelerate considerably due to the increased geothermal heat.”
The new geothermal heat flow maps are based on various geomagnetic field datasets from West Antarctica, which the researchers have collated and analysed using a complex procedure. “Inferring geothermal heat flow from magnetic field data is a tried and tested method, mainly used in regions where little is known about the characteristics of the geological underground,” explains Fausto Ferraccioli from the British Antarctic Survey and the Istituto Nazionale di Oceanografia e di Geofisica Sperimentale (OGS), one of the study’s co-authors.