Feb 16, 2023 - Podcasts

New findings on the "Doomsday Glacier"

The Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is known as the "doomsday glacier." That's because if it melts, it could raise sea levels by up to 10 feet. Now, new research is changing our understanding of it.

  • Plus, Tesla's role in making electric vehicle chargers more available nationwide.

Guests: Axios' Andrew Freedman and Joann Muller.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Naomi Shavin, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, February 16th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re covering today: making electric vehicle chargers more available nationwide. But first, new findings on the so-called Doomsday Glacier. That’s today’s One Big Thing.

New findings on the "Doomsday Glacier"

NIALA: The Thwaites Glacier is at the top of the list of glaciers that keep polar scientists up at night, says Axios’ Senior Climate and Energy Reporter Andrew Freedman. That’s because if it melts, it could raise sea levels by up to 10 feet. Now, new research is expanding – and complicating - our understanding of this glacier. So how to make sense of it all? Andrew’s here with us for that.

Hey - so Andrew - first - why is Thwaites called “the doomsday glacier”?

ANDREW FREEDMAN: Yeah, so scientists are trying to push back against that term, but it's really very, very true. It's the glacier that could generate the most sea level rise the fastest, at least of the ones that we understand relatively well.

NIALA: So there were two studies just published yesterday about Thwaites. What are the most important things we need to know from those studies?

ANDREW: So those studies were the result of a five-year, $50 million research campaign, which sent scientists, putting robots, underneath the ice. It was some really cool, ambitious work that was done. And, uh, the really important things to know about these two different studies are that the melting that is going on there is complicated. There is a reason for greater concern. The water that's coming into contact with the bottom of the ice sheet is not as warm as we expected, but the glacier is still retreating incredibly fast.

NIALA: So is there anything that can be done to slow or stop the melting of this glacier? Is that even a goal at this point?

ANDREW: There are some studies that show that we have already triggered irreversible loss of the West Antarctic ice sheet. I think most scientists, however, say that what we emit in the next several decades will determine the course of sea level rise for the next several centuries, and that includes West Antarctica. The decisions that we make in the next two decades, especially, uh, may push glaciers like Thwaites over the edge or may contain them.

NIALA: Andrew, you also wrote about another study out this week that had to do with climate change and ice sheet melt, and that study found that human caused global warming must be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius or less in order to avoid a multi-century melting of the ice sheets and a rise in sea levels. Is that goal realistic at this point?

ANDREW: No, that goal is not realistic at this point, you know, we're already at 1.2 C and we're going right now, uh, if all global pledges are met, we would go to 2.4 C. So it, it's not realistic, however, It does illustrate the point that there is so much sensitivity in what we might imagine to be these vast ice sheets that are immovable and we can't imagine that we can have such a big effect on them, but in reality, even relatively low amounts of warming compared to what is possible, would significantly disrupt, both Greenland and Antarctica.

NIALA: Andrew, I feel like you and I often talk about how difficult climate news is to digest, especially when it seems so alarming. So with that in mind, it was especially interesting for me to read that one climate scientist you talked to said they viewed these papers on Thwaites Glacier with a sense of optimism.

ANDREW: The reason there's some optimism about this glacier is because scientists were looking at all of these nightmare scenarios. We literally didn't know if there was gonna be a large collapse of a portion or all of this glacier, tomorrow. And now we go in there and they find this data, and the data doesn't say, oh, it's gonna happen ASAP. It says there's reasons for concern, there's reasons for alarm. We need more studies done and more observations, but it just shows how science works and that, it kind of leads to additional questions, and additional worries. Overall, you know, maybe we'll get a better sense of what the true range is here and it won't be quite as scary.

NIALA: Andrew Freedman is senior climate and energy reporter. Thanks Andrew.

ANDREW: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: In a moment, making EVs a more attractive option for potential buyers.


Tesla’s role in making electric vehicle chargers more available nationwide

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

The White House announced yesterday that Tesla will open part of its charging network to other brands of electric vehicles for the first time ever. By the end of 2024, at least 7,500 Tesla chargers will be available for all EVs across the U.S., including along highway corridors, making long-distance travel more accessible.

Axios’ Joann Muller has been covering this, coincidentally from a cross-country trip in an EV. Hey, Joann.


NIALA: So Joann, the Biden administration, has been pushing for a shift away from gasoline powered cars. How does this charging deal with Tesla help that goal?

JOANN: Well look, a lot of people have been reluctant to buy EVs because even though they're gonna charge mostly at home, they're worried about that rare road trip that they wanna have. So it could have a very big impact. So, you know, the chargers are going in and the government is providing the funding for some of it, private companies are spending as well. So I think over the next, uh, two to five years, we're going to see a big explosion in the amount of charging plugs available for EVs.

NIALA: And you know this first hand because you just drove from Michigan to Florida, not in a Tesla. How did that go?

JOANN: Yeah, we drove from, from Michigan to Washington, D.C. and then down to Florida. And we charged mostly at Fast chargers that are owned by, uh, Electrify America and EVgo. And they're, they're similar to Tesla Chargers, but there's just not enough of them across the U.S. yet for everyone to feel comfortable. We didn't have any problems. We didn't have any giant range anxiety. My husband set out first before me. He was a little worried about the cold temperatures draining the battery. So he kept the heat down in the car and just used the seat heater to keep himself warm. You know, we, we found that we were okay, but once you start having a lot of people driving electric vehicles, we're going to need a lot more chargers.

NIALA: And for non Tesla EVs is having Tesla chargers at their disposal actually helpful because how does this work with charging ports? Are they universal?

JOANN: The Tesla network uses a different type of plug, a different connector than everyone else in the industry. What it means is you're going to need an adapter, to charge your car if it's not a Tesla. Now, right now you can buy one of these adapters, it costs like $150. I opted not to buy one because I'm betting on the other networks being sufficient to get me where I need to go.

NIALA: So by 2030, the White House is hoping EVs make up at least half of new car sales given the number of charging stations that are currently available and the rate at which it's growing. How feasible is that?

JOANN: S&P Global Mobility, which studies this space really carefully, they say we're gonna need at least eight times as many chargers as we have today, both Tesla and the non Tesla chargers. But I also think that the White House's goal of seeing 50% of all new car sales being electric by 2030 is rather aggressive. I'm not sure we're going to get there. But really it's a problem, you have to scale the infrastructure at the same time that you grow the sales of EVs. And those things really need to be lined up and potentially the chargers need to get there first in order for people to feel comfortable.

NIALA: Joann Muller covers the future of transportation for Axios. Thanks, Joann.

JOANN: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: One last thing before we go: I want to take a second to say thank you so much to all of you for writing in your comments, your reactions, your story ideas, today and every day.

Including this, a text from Kara in Philadelphia, in response to our story yesterday about diabetes drugs being used for weight loss.

Kara wrote, “as someone who has a chronic illness related to weight, being on the drug is imperative for my health. On one podcast I listened to, a celebrity says her doctor gives ozempic out like candy. It frustrates me so much that wealthier people have easier access to the drug because they can afford out of pocket costs while I had to jump through so many hoops to get insurance to cover it. Even with it being medically necessary. Also, the side effects are no joke.”

Thanks Kara, and remember you can send me a text too – at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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