Home / Science / How unstable is the massive Thwaites Glacier? Scientists will find out

How unstable is the massive Thwaites Glacier? Scientists will find out

US and British science organizations announced more than a generation of joint Antarctic research on Monday

The focus is on the Thwaites Glacier, which is about the size of Florida and on the western edge of the Antarctic [19659003] Ice melting on Thwaites accounts for 4 percent of global sea-level rise, an amount that has almost doubled since the 1

990s. Scientists in the new five-year research collaboration hope to find out how much more and how fast the glacier will melt as the world continues to warm.

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Today, the forecasts for sea-level rise vary widely, from about one foot to six feet by the end of the century. Part of this uncertainty is related to how the Antarctic and especially the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (home of Thwaites) will react to warmer air and water temperatures.

Computer modeling shows that Thwaites is unstable and could collapse within decades.

"Some versions of this model give us little change in the glacier … Equally reasonable versions of this model will almost completely bring us to collapse the glacier, which would lead to a sea level rise of 0.8 meters or 1 meter", says Keith Nicholls of the British Antarctic Survey, who is jointly conducting a research project to study the ice surface of the glacier

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"What we're trying to do 'Find out which of them is just as plausible. Versions of the model are correct.'

The UK's Natural Environment Research Council and the US National Science Foundation are organizing the effort involving around 100 scientists from seven different countries for years in work.

"The whole program is about understanding that there are additional sea level uncertainties and doing what we can to protect the coasts and prepare property to protect their populations," said David Vaughan, director of science The British Antarctic Survey, announced at a press conference on Monday in Cambridge, England.

Remote Area Hard to Investigate

The first scientist entered Thwaites in the 1950s, but only a few dozen researchers have since returned. This is partly because Thwaites is about 1,000 miles from the nearest permanent research station and the weather conditions are particularly tense.

"Logistics makes this science extremely difficult," says David Holland of New York University, Nicholls & # 39; collaborators and one of the researchers who previously worked at Thwaites. "The time window for investigation is low, mainly from December to January, before it is too cold, after that it is too cold."

A total of eight teams are exploring the glacier itself, the Antarctic climate and the underlying water. A team will examine the bedrock beneath the ice sheet for clues as to whether the glacier has retreated in the past and, if so, how it has recovered. Radar and seismic analyzes examine what controls the width and velocity of Thwaites.

Another research project, led by Erin Pettit of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, examines how the ocean beneath the glacier and the atmosphere above it affect the ice.

Glaciers can destabilize when melt water on the surface leads to fractures that deepen over time. But they can also be eaten away by the warmer seawater that circulates underneath. Researchers have recently discovered that this happens in the Antarctic.

"[Thwaites] We think is more influenced by what happens on the bottom, so the heat brought in from the ocean, from circumpolar deep waters," said Pettit.

Pettit's team will use hot water drills to introduce sensors into the glacier and deploy unmanned subs – including today's famous Boaty McBoatface – to measure sea temperatures below the glacier.

They even attach sensors to seals They expand their view of the conditions in the Amundsen Sea

"[Seals] dive up and down and they go everywhere, they can basically provide this spatial and temporal image of what the ocean features are, "Pettit said.

The logistics of research will be complex even by Antarctic standards. Some researchers will fly from British and American research institutions. On site at their research sites, they will camp for weeks in tents on the ice. Others will reach the glacier face on icebreakers.

The research effort should provide scientists with insight into the future not only of Thwaites but also of a larger piece of the Antarctic.

"Thwaites is the 800-pound gorilla just because" How big and far and deep into the West Antarctic this special outlet glacier goes, "says Chris Shuman, a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who is at Goddard Space NASA's Flight Center works and does not collaborate with the project to improve our ability to understand the response of the entire West Antarctic ice sheet. "

If the entire West Antarctic ice sheet collapsed, it could increase sea levels by up to 13 feet.

The new study represents a major investment by the polar research groups from the US and the UK and demonstrates the importance of Thwaites' fate for millions of coastal communities in both countries.

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