Scientists are about to set off on the biggest field campaign – in terms of number of ships, planes, and researchers – ever launched to study Antarctica.
They will head out to Thwaites Glacier, which is considered one of the most dangerous glaciers in the world when it comes to future rises in sea level. As one of the weakest points of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet with the speed at which it has been retreating increasing, a joint research project between the UK’s Natural Environmental Research Council and the US’s National Science Foundation (NSF) will seek to better understand the processes that are leading to its decline.
Thwaites Glacier is located on the Pacific side of Antarctica, meaning that it is receiving warm water from the tropics. As a marine-terminating glacier, this is having a significant effect as it is melting the ice from below and speeding up the flow of the glacier into the sea.
How this is likely to affect sea level rise is one thing that the scientists want to understand. It is thought that Thwaites Glacier alone has already increased global sea levels by 4 percent.
But the glacier is even more of an oddity than it might at first seem. From the point at which the glacier moves from land to sea, the ground actually slopes back towards the middle of the Antarctic continent. This is more than just a curiosity, however, as it could have some serious implications for the future stability of the massive glacier.
Where a glacier meets the sea, it forms an ice sheet before calving off. As the water underneath warms up due to climate change, this ice sheet retreats until it hits what is known as the grounding line. It is thought that when this occurs at Thwaites Glacier, the sea will basically pour down the slope underneath the mass of ice. This would clearly have a significant impact on the stability of the entire glacier, threatening major sea level rise.
“Satellites show the Thwaites region is changing rapidly, but to answer the key questions of how much, and how quickly sea level will change in the future requires scientists on the ground with sophisticated equipment collecting the data we need to measure rates of ice-volume, or ice-mass change,” explained Dr William Easterling, assistant director for the NSF’s Geosciences Directorate.
“The challenges of conducting fieldwork of this scope and scale in such remote locations are enormous.”
They will employ all the tools and tech available, from submarines to planes, and even attaching sensors to the heads of wild seals so that they will record data as they swim under the ice. Costing an estimated £20 million ($13.7 million), it will be the biggest joint venture between the US and UK on the southern continent in more than 70 years.