Editor's note: Carolyn Beeler of the World will be aboard Nathaniel B. Palmer from January to March to undertake a seven-week exploration of Thwaites Glacier. Follow your journey on The World, TheWorld.org and Instagram @pritheworld. Do you have a question about Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica, life on board or anything else? Send a voice note or email to [email protected] or send a message to 857-285-4157.
Scientists have begun a race against time this winter to understand a massive and unstable glacier that could change the coasts of the world within decades.
An international research group launched a five-year project with approximately $ 50 million worth of Thwaites Glacier, a remote and notoriously badly weathered glacier in the middle of West Antarctica.
"It's about the size of the island of Britain," said Ted Scambos, scientist and co-leader of The International Cooperation of Thwaites Glaciers.
. Related topics: When the Greenland ice sheet melts, scientists want to know how fast it is.
"This is a huge area. If you add a little more than half a mile to a mile of ice, we'll pick it all up and put it in the ocean. "
And because of the nature of the underlying rock, when Thwaites begins to collapse, it could go fast and contribute to a rise in global sea-level rise of about 2 feet in just 50 years," said Scambos.
"That's the problem. The sea level rise is not nearly as fast as a rapid ascent, faster than we can respond, plan or build, "said Scambos. "That's why Thwaites gets so important because it can give a real turbo charge effect for global sea level rise."
The ultimate goal of the Thwaites project, which Scambos has been supporting for years, is to provide more accurate models for global sea-level rise so that coastal residents and governments have enough time to plan for future changes.
Related: An environmental newspaper fights for press freedom in the Russian Arctic
In cities like Miami, perhaps the most vulnerable American city, infrastructure decisions are already taken after 50 years ,
"Ultimately, the challenge is to understand the melting of the Antarctic ice so we can better predict sea-level rise over the next decades and centuries. "
" Ultimately, the challenge is to understand the melting of the Antarc To better predict sea-level rise over the next decades and centuries, Karen Heywood, oceanographer, said at the University of East Anglia, who were involved in the research.
A "phenomenal effort"
Research funded by the US and UK government agencies, and over the next five years, eight research teams, each headed by a British and an American scientist, are trying to answer key questions about To answer glaciers. This includes how much the circulation patterns of the oceans and the warming temperatures at the bottom of the glacier melt; how "attachment points" or elevations in the ocean floor beneath the land-based part of the glacier will affect its destabilization; and how to predict or model a potentially fast collapse in front of the glacier.
So far this winter, hundreds of thousands of pounds of fuel and equipment have been brought to Thwaites by 35 American military transport aircraft equipped with skis and delivered by British ships to the floating sea ice on the edge of the Antarctic.
"It's a phenomenal effort by both countries, the UK and the US," said Scambos.
Ice next winter – the Antarctic summer – when the season on the glacier begins seriously.
Related: While the Arctic warms, a "new ocean" brings new trade to the top-of-the-world region
Under the Ice Shelf
But studies on the face of the glacier and the sea below will begin in a few weeks aboard a US research vessel with icebreaker capabilities called Nathaniel B. Palmer.
Karen Heywood of The University of East Anglia is jointly leading a project that will focus this season on how much water the seawater heats beneath the floating edge of the ice so as to melt the bottom of the glacier. For the moment, no one knows exactly how deep the huge underwater cave lies beneath the edge of Thwaites or what the seabed below looks like.
"At the moment we know almost nothing under the ice board."
"At the moment, we know almost nothing under the ice shelf," Heywood said.
On research expedition, a Heywood employee, a Swedish researcher named Anna Wahlin, will test a robotic submarine called HUGIN, which will eventually navigate beneath this floating ice shelf.
"Under the ice shelf of the Thwaites Glacier, measurements or instruments have never been sent, and that's why it's so exciting. Heywood said.
The Heywood team will also label gaskets with sensors that collect temperature and salinity data and return it to researchers for up to a year.
Another research group co-chaired by the University In the meeting of Julia Wellner from Houston, the seabed is mapped using sonar technology and sediment cores collected to learn how the ice has reacted in warm water in the past.
"It did [destabilize] it took a step back when it's warm water has reached it in the past," Wellner said. "Or was it somehow able to withstand these earlier warm water events?"
A third research team will visit islands near Thwaites to search for organic material such as penguin bones and shells to better understand the historical fluctuations in sea level.
Research results are expected to be phased out before the end of the year.
Thwaites, a "linchpin"
These data could predict the future not just for Thwaites, but for all of Mexico's West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
"Thwaites is in this position," said Scambos. "And if we lose Thwaites, it's like taking the center out of that ice sheet, which means that other areas of the ice cover will collapse as well."
A complete collapse of the West Antarctic would increase sea levels by 10 to 11 feet rise, Scambos said. That would probably take centuries, but it could happen faster.
"The worst case could be in 100 years, that you would get so much water in the ocean. We do not have much faith in that. It could be that we have longer; It may be that we do not have that long, "said Richard Alley, another contributor to the project at Penn State University.
" We're not sure yet what the Black Swan is that could be the worst happen at Thwaites. "
" We're not sure yet what the Black Swan is, the worst thing that could happen to Thwaites, "said Alley," We're very confident that this five-year research collaboration will give us an insight into [that]. "
Scientists know how important Thwaites has been for years, but" there's not as much data as We Want because it's so inaccessible even by Antarctic standards is, "Wellner said.
The novelty of doing research in such a remote location and the urgency of the problem they are trying to solve make research exciting, she said. But it also increases the pressure on the more than 100 scientists involved in the project.
"There is this great impetus that we need answers soon," Wellner said. "There is not more pressure to do it right than normal, but there is more pressure to be fast."