Climate

A $25 million glacier mission to the end of the world

Researchers are going on a $25 million glacier mission to the end of the world

The U.S. and British national science agencies made a joint announcement Thursday that they will spend $20 million to $25 million on research missions to Thwaites glacier, a massive, remote body of ice in Antarctica that is collapsing rapidly and has become a major contributor to sea-level rise.

The glacier, up to two miles thick in places and the size of Pennsylvania area-wise, has a 75-mile-long ocean front, which means it’s particularly vulnerable to rising sea temperatures. If it melts entirely, Thwaites could cause sea levels to rise by two feet and it is already believed to contribute 10 percent of the meltwater that’s pushing shorelines higher worldwide. Now, polar researchers are rushing to understand exactly why the glacier is so vulnerable.

Despite the obvious importance of understanding how global warming affects polar ice caps, Thwaites’ melting patterns are not yet well understood and little research has been done in the area, mostly because it’s so remote. It is almost entirely inaccessible by ship because of dangerous, icy conditions in the bordering Amundsen Sea, and the nearest research base is more than 1,000 miles away.

Facing these challenges, researchers behind the multimillion-dollar grant proposal will have to be creative about approaching their target when they embark on the first field season in 2018. The science foundations predict that the logistical support they need to work in this inhospitable environment will add millions of dollars to the final tab. Paul Cutler, program director for Antarctic Integrated System Science at the U.S. National Science Foundation, told the Washington Post that the mission will require scientists to set up camps on the glacier itself, send underwater vehicles under the ice shelf, and make multiple trips over it in planes to gather enough data to assess the full potential for devastating change.

Only a few years ago, there was an assumption even among climate scientists that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would be stable and resilient to global warming, but recently, evidence is mounting that shows it is, in fact, melting fast.

Thwaites is no exception: The glacial front where a wall of ice meets the Amundsen Sea is collapsing and retreated eight miles in 20 years, while melting rates have doubled in just six years. As it continues to melt, scientists are racing to understand how, and how much, global warming is going to affect Antarctic ice in the next decades and centuries, and work out just how worried we should be.

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