NERC and NSF jointly support research into fate of Antarctic glacier

21 October 2016

NERC and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) have announced that they will jointly fund as much as $25 million (approx. £20 million) in research, and make available additional funding for associated logistical support, to understand a massive Antarctic glacier whose collapse could significantly affect global sea level.

Thwaites Glacier

Thwaites Glacier

NSF and NERC issued a solicitation for proposals today to support fieldwork and modelling in the vicinity of West Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier and the adjacent Amundsen Sea.

The agencies will jointly support $20 million - $25 million in research over the next five years. Allocation of logistics support for fieldwork would increase that commitment significantly. Logistical commitments will be tailored to the needs of the specific science projects that emerge from a joint merit review process.

Workshops in the UK and the US in the past year have noted the future activity of the glacier as an unknown and potential major concern for the fate of the enormous West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which holds enough water to produce the equivalent of more than 3 metres (9 feet) of global sea level rise.

Marine-terminating glaciers like Thwaites, which recede into increasingly deep waters, are particularly sensitive to collapse. If they do so, their movement toward the sea would accelerate. Unlike the Arctic Ocean, where floating ice consists of frozen salt water and melting has no direct effect on sea-level rise, the contribution of freshwater from the Antarctic ice sheet could be enormous.

Satellite measurements indicate that the rate of ice loss near the Thwaites Glacier has doubled in six years, and now accounts for about 10% of global sea level rise. Recent studies indicate that the greatest risk for future rapid sea-level rise now comes from the Thwaites Glacier due to the large changes already underway, the potential contribution to sea-level rise, and the fact that a collapse could occur within decades or centuries - a remarkably rapid change in relatively short geological time.

Reducing scientific uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of the collapse of West Antarctic glaciers is an international priority that was recently underscored by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research in its report, Horizon Scan 2020 - external link.

A recent National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, & Medicine report, A Strategic Vision for NSF Investments in Antarctic & Southern Ocean Research - external link, cited enhanced capabilities to predict ice loss from West Antarctica as top priority for Antarctic research. It singled out the Thwaites Glacier as a "region of particular concern".

Following a preparatory field season in 2018-2019, the Thwaites fieldwork is expected to begin in the 2019-2020 Antarctic research season, which stretches from October through February.

Further information

Mary Goodchild
NERC media office
01793 411939
07710 147485

Peter West
National Science Foundation
1 703 292 7530

Cheryl Dybas
National Science Foundation
1 703 292 7734

Programme contacts:

Jessica Surma

Paul M Cutler
National Science Foundation
1 703 292 4961


1. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, its budget is $7·5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $626 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

2. NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is a non-departmental public body. We receive around £330 million of annual funding from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).