UK and US join forces to understand how quickly a massive Antarctic glacier could collapse

30 April 2018

A joint UK-US research programme launched today is one of the most detailed and extensive examinations of a massive Antarctic glacier ever undertaken.

Aerial view of Thwaites Glacier

Reconnaissance flight over the Thwaites Glacier

The collapse of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica could significantly affect global sea levels. It already drains an area roughly the size of Britain or the US state of Florida, accounting for around 4% of global sea-level rise - an amount that has doubled since the mid-1990s.

As part of a new £20 million research collaboration, NERC and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) will deploy scientists to gather the data needed to understand whether the glacier's collapse could begin in the next few decades or centuries.

NERC and NSF have jointly funded eight large-scale projects that will bring together leading polar scientists in one of the most inhospitable regions of the planet. The programme, called the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), is the largest joint project undertaken by the two nations in Antarctica for more than 70 years - since the conclusion of a mapping project on the Antarctic Peninsula in the late 1940s.

Today's collaboration involves around 100 scientists from world-leading research institutes in both countries, alongside researchers from South Korea, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland, who will contribute to the various projects. These projects aim to deliver answers to some of the big questions for scientists trying to predict global sea-level rise.

Subtitles (closed captions) are available once the video is playing.

Antarctica's glaciers contribute to sea-level rise when more ice is lost to the ocean than is replaced by snow. To fully understand the causes of changes in ice flow requires research on the ice itself, the nearby ocean and the Antarctic climate in the region. The programme will deploy the most up-to-date instruments and techniques available, from drills that can make access holes 1,500m into the ice with jets of hot water to autonomous submarines like the Autosub Long Range affectionately known around the world as Boaty McBoatface.

In addition to the £20 million-worth of awards to the research teams, the logistics of mounting a scientific campaign in one of the most remote places in Antarctica could cost as much again in logistical support. The nearest permanently occupied research station to the Thwaites Glacier is more than 1,600km away, so getting the scientists to where they need to be will take a massive joint effort from both nations. While researchers on the ice will rely on aircraft support from UK and US research stations, oceanographers and geophysicists will approach the glacier from the sea in UK and US research icebreakers.

Investigating Thwaites Glacier infographic - the text of which is available to screen readers below

UK Science Minister Sam Gyimah said:

Rising sea levels are a globally important issue which cannot be tackled by one country alone. The Thwaites Glacier already contributes to rising sea levels and understanding its likely collapse in the coming century is vitally important. Science, research and innovation is at the heart of our industrial strategy and this UK-US research programme will be the biggest field campaign of its type ever mounted by these countries. I'm delighted that our world-leading scientists will help leading this work.

NERC's Executive Chair Professor Duncan Wingham said:

The fate of the Thwaites Glacier is one the big unknowns in Antarctic science. We currently do not know enough about the likelihood, timing and magnitude of the collapse of West Antarctic glaciers such as Thwaites for countries to be able to plan accordingly. NERC and NSF, working together, are uniquely placed to attempt to reduce the scientific uncertainty about these unknowns, providing answers to one of the most important questions facing us about global sea-level rise.

Dr William E Easterling, Assistant Director for the National Science Foundation's Geosciences Directorate, said:

Satellites show the Thwaites region is changing rapidly, but to answer the key questions of how much, and how quickly sea level will change in the future requires scientists on the ground with sophisticated equipment collecting the data we need to measure rates of ice-volume, or ice-mass change. The challenges of conducting fieldwork of this scope and scale in such remote locations are enormous. The only practical way for nations to do this is to work collaboratively, each bringing their resources, both scientific and logistical, to enable complex and comprehensive field studies.

Dr Kelly K Falkner, Head of the NSF-managed US Antarctic Program official, said:

The US Antarctic Program has decades of experience in supporting large-scale international research initiatives - from building the world's largest neutrino detector at the South Pole to supporting ice-core and sediment drilling projects that provided glimpses into the thawing and freezing of Antarctica over timescales of millions of years. I am fully confident that we will rise to the challenge of supporting these projects just as well.

Lead scientific coordinator for the UK, Professor David Vaughan, Director of Science at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), said:

Whilst Antarctica seems far away, what is happening there is already affecting sea levels around the world. 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, and to make a difference by helping to provide the information we need to help protect coastal cities, ecosystems and vulnerable communities around the world.

Lead US scientific coordinator, Dr Ted Scambos of the National Snow & Ice Data Center, said:

For more than a decade, satellites have identified this area as a region of massive ice loss and rapid change. 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 science programme and logistics on the five-year programme begins in October 2018 and continues to 2021. The funding is for eight research projects and a co-ordination grant to maximise success.

The science activities and information gathered will be disseminated through several outreach and media-aimed efforts in the UK and US, and with websites and blogs. The data gathered by ITGC will be archived and freely shared at the end of the programme to help future understanding of the area.


Further information

UK media contact:

Mary Goodchild
NERC
01793 411939
07710 147485

US media contact:

Peter West
National Science Foundation
+1 703 292 7530


Notes

1. The eight ITGC research projects, and one coordination project, are:

  • GHOST - Geophysical habitat of subglacial Thwaites - Sridhar Anandakrishnan, Penn State University, and Andy Smith, BAS

    Using seismic and radar methods on the ice, GHOST will investigate and quantify the sediment, hydrology and bedrock underlying the glacier.

  • MELT - Melting at Thwaites grounding zone and its control on sea level - Keith Nicholls, BAS, and David Holland, New York University

    This project will measure the melting at the ice-ocean interface of the glacier, to understand the processes involved and its potential for triggering increased sea-level rise.

  • TARSAN - Thwaites-Amundsen regional survey and network - Karen Heywood, University of East Anglia, and Erin Pettit, University of Alaska Fairbanks

    Measuring ocean circulation and thinning beneath the floating part of the glacier using state of the art technology such as autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and automated land-ice stations, TARSAN will investigate how the ocean and atmosphere are affecting the glacier.

  • GHC - Geological history constraints on grounding line retreat in the Thwaites Glacier system - Joanne Johnson, BAS, and Brent Goehring, Tulane University

    Sampling bedrock beneath the ice sheet, GHC will identify if and when the glacier retreated in the past, how it recovered, and how it is currently responding to environmental conditions.

  • TIME - Thwaites interdisciplinary margin evolution - Slawek Tulaczyk, University of California, Santa Cruz, and Poul Christoffersen, Scott Polar Research Institute

    Using a variety of techniques such as radar and seismic analysis to understand the margins of the glacier, TIME will investigate what controls its width and speed.

  • THOR - Thwaites Glacier offshore research - Julia Wellner, University of Houston, and Robert Larter, BAS

    Investigating sediments deposited in the seas near the glacier, THOR will reconstruct past changes in environmental conditions and the glacier's response to these, thereby adding context to our projections of future change.

  • DOMINOS - Disintegration of marine ice sheets using novel optimised simulations - Doug Benn, University of St Andrews, and Jeremy Bassis, University of Michigan

    The DOMINOS team will use computer modelling to examine calving and associated processes that could cause the rapid retreat and collapse of the glacier.

  • PROPHET - Processes, drivers, predictions: Modelling the history and evolution of Thwaites Glacier - Mathieu Morlinghem, University of California, Irvine, and Hilmar Gudmundsson, University of Northumbria

    By combining existing computer simulations of ice and ocean near the glacier, PROPHET will improve models to reduce the uncertainty in the projection of the glacier's behaviour and subsequent contribution to sea-level rise in the future.

  • SCO - Thwaites science coordination office - David Vaughan, BAS, and Ted Scambos, University of Colorado

    Working for the eight ITGC projects, the SCO will integrate for efficiency and effectiveness, foster wider scientific collaboration, and deliver crucial science outcomes to key stakeholders.

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 part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

3. The US National Science Foundation (NSF). The US Congress in 1950 established the Foundation "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; to secure the national defence; and for other purposes." NSF is vital because its supports basic research to create knowledge that transforms the future. With an annual budget of $7·8 billion (fiscal year 2018), NSF funds discovery, learning, innovation and research infrastructure to boost US leadership in all aspects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research and education. In contrast, other federal agencies support research focused on specific missions, such as health, energy or defence.

4. BAS, an institute of NERC, delivers and enables world-leading interdisciplinary research in the polar regions. Its skilled science and support staff based in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic, work together to deliver research that uses the polar regions to advance our understanding of Earth as a sustainable planet. Through its extensive logistic capability and know how BAS facilitates access for the British and international science community to the UK polar research operation. Numerous national and international collaborations, combined with an excellent infrastructure help sustain a world leading position for the UK in Antarctic affairs.

5. The US National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC) is a NASA, NSF, and NOAA-funded data and research centre focused on the cryosphere - the frozen regions of the Earth. The centre manages remote sensing and field data of polar and mountain regions as the NASA Snow & Ice Distributed Active Archive Center (NSIDC DAAC), and supports a research team of 26 scientists active in all areas of polar and glacier research, including sea ice, glaciers, permafrost, and indigenous knowledge of polar-dwelling cultures. NSIDC is a valued part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.