Scientists from the United States and the United Kingdom have set off on series of missions to West Antarctica’s Thwaites glacier, considered by some to be the world’s most dangerous glacier. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the British Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) will deploy six field missions to Thwaites in the next several years. The National Science Foundation’s Paul Cutler is managing the Thwaites program.
Of all the glaciers in Antarctica threatened by climate change, scientists have recently grown especially concerned about Thwaites. The glacier is a body of ice the size of Florida that could contribute about 10 feet of global sea-level rise. Scientists fear that the melting of the glacier could flood the world’s coastlines in our lifetimes.
In recent years, data gathered by satellites and aerial surveys from NASA’s Operation IceBridge have shown that Thwaites and other smaller glaciers in the Amundsen Sea region are melting faster than anywhere else on Earth. Scientists think this is being caused by warm ocean waters climbing onto continental shelves. While not much above freezing, the salty waters can rapidly melt ice.
The coastal glaciers along the Amundsen Sea are responsible for holding back inland glaciers that are also below sea level. If they collapse, it could set off a larger collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, resulting in catastrophic sea level rise. There are signs that an irreversible collapse has already begun.
This will be the largest U.S.-British Antarctic mission in seven decades. About 100 scientists are involved in the project in various capacities, including some of the world’s top polar scientists. Underwater research vehicle “Boaty McBoatface” will also be participating in the missions.
The cost of the missions is estimated to be about $25 million for the research itself and an additional $25 million more for logistical support. The missions will be backed by two computer modeling projects to process data and calculate its potential effects on the world’s coastlines.
David Holland, a geoscientist at New York University, will pair with British Antarctic Survey researcher Keith Nicholls to lead one of the six scientific field missions. Holland’s project will involve installing measuring devices in the ocean below Thwaites to help determine the melt rate of the glacier and the ocean dynamics driving the melting.
Sridhar Anandakrishnan, a Penn State geoscientist, will lead another Thwaites mission with Andy Smith of the British Antarctic Survey. Anandakrishnan’s team will be doing seismic surveys to measure what kind of substance Thwaites is flowing over.