More than 100 polar scientists from research institutions in the US and UK will be dispatched to Antarctica over the next five years to investigate whether the Thwaites Glacier could collapse.
The glacier, which is double the size of the UK, is already responsible for around four per cent of global sea level rise. Scientists are concerned that the ice sheet could retreat further and become unstable — leading to its eventual collapse and contribution to catastrophic sea level rise.
When more glacial ice is lost to the ocean than snow is able to replace, global sea levels rise. To fully understand and predict the changes in ice volume and mass, scientists must also understand the behaviours of the ocean and wider Antarctic climate.
“For more than a decade, satellites have identified this area as a region of massive ice loss and rapid change,” says the project’s lead US scientific coordinator, Ted Scambos, of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “But there are still many aspects of the ice and ocean that cannot be determined from space.
“We need to go there, with a robust scientific plan of activity, and learn more about how this area is changing in detail, so we can reduce the uncertainty of what might happen in the future.”
The $25m Thwaites Glacier initiative is the largest Antarctic research collaboration between the two countries since the 1940s. Teams of scientists will utilize a range of tools — including unmanned submarines and drills capable of boring holes 1,500m into the ice — to evaluate conditions around the glacier.
The nearest permanently-occupied research station to the ice sheet is over 1,600km away, presenting a logistical challenge to scientists who want to access the site. The US and UK have agreed to coordinate their aircraft operations to transport glaciologists to their study sites, and deploy ice-class vessels so that the glacier can be approached from the sea.
“Whilst Antarctica seems far away, what is happening there is already affecting sea-levels around the world,” says professor David Vaughan, director of science at the British Antarctic Survey. “UK and US scientists have a track record of working well together on the ice, and together we have a unique opportunity to change our understanding of Antarctica.”
The research campaign begins in October 2018 and will continue to 2023.