British Antarctic Survey team studies grave threat to huge glacier
International team's Thwaites Glacier research will focus on catastropic ice melt damage
A joint US-UK research programme launched on Monday will subject the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica to the most stringent examination of Antarctic ice ever undertaken.
The research is vital: the Thwaites Glacier, which is the size of Britain, belongs to the vulnerable West Antarctic Ice Sheet and accounts for around four per cent of global sea-level rise — an amount that has doubled since the mid-1990s. Today, that means 80 square miles of ice being lifted off the seafloor and floating away every year since 2010. That’s four times the size of Manhattan: imagine if that was happening to Norfolk or Suffolk every year... The scale of the damage is troubling – and, if all Antarctica’s glaciers melted, sea levels would rise by 60 metres.
Rob Larter is a marine geophysicist working at British Antarctic Survey. Based in Madingley Road, he goes off on a research ship every year or two.
If all of Antarctica melted, sea levels would rise by 60 metres.
“Nobody is saying 60 metres is going to happen,” he says of the alarming statistic. “However, most people agree the Thwaites Glacier is most vulnerable to change. If the whole Thwaites Glacier collapses that will add 80cm to the sea level.”
So not too bad?
“Currently the sea level rises 3mm a year, or 30cm a century.”
Rob is a project leader in the Thwaites research team, which involves eight research projects, 40 institutions and 150 established investigators.
“I’ll be leading research crews,” he says. “We’ll be working on the Nathaniel B Palmer, a research ship.”
The Palmer is part of the United States’ Antarctic programme. Being a joint US-UK effort, the UK will chip in with our very own RRS (Royal Research Ship) Sir David Attenborough – that’s the one that was going to be named Boaty McBoatface after the name won an online poll in 2016. Fortunately – in that instance at least – the public’s inclination to vote for really stupid ideas was given short shrift, and the ‘Boaty’ tag is being applied to on-board submersibles only.
“The hull is going in the water in July,” says Larter of the RRS Sir David Attenborough, which is owned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) but will be operated by the Cambridge organisation. “It’s due to be named and handed over to the British Antarctic Survey towards the end of the year. There’s a long period of trials and equipment tests so it’ll be 2021 before it’s involved.”
It’ll be needed: the £20million research collaboration between the UK’s NERC and the US National Science Foundation could last decades if given the chance, but the first tranche of funding is expected to last five years.
Some of the world’s most eminent scientists will assess what’s happening at Thwaites, fearing that the collapse of the ice sheet on the western half of the continent may already have begun. The UK and US have now joined forces to understand how quickly this massive glacier could collapse.
The Antarctic is a continent of ice sitting on top of submerged glaciers which rest deep at the seafloor of the ocean, at the “grounding line”. This is where the ice, ocean and bedrock meet – and, with sea water temperatures in the region having increased since the 1970s, 10 per cent of this ocean-facing ice mass is retreating back to the centre as it melts.
Tragically, and possibly catastrophically, the downfall of the Thwaites Glacier is probably already under way. Finding out the exact scale and speed of the impending catastrophe is the purpose of the research, and Rob’s background in deep time, studying sediment cores at the bottom of the ocean, is very handy. Taking a journey back in time helps us work out what’s going on today, to establish if the trends are reversible, or whether the ice retreat will speed up.
“I study the sea floor and what’s below the sea floor,” Rob explains.
“I work with geologists, so they find sites with sediment cores and I understand the context of those cores.”
He gets results by analysing micro-fossils.
“The composition of the shells of micro-fossils reflects the composition of the water they lived in. A particular composition of water carries a signature we can recognise in these shells, and there’s other radio isotope data we can use.”
With other nations including Germany, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland and South Korea involved in the programme, the urgency of the drama unfolding at the South Pole is finally getting the consideration it deserves.
“This is a chance to make a quantum leap forward on how the ice sheet operates in general,” says Rob.
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.”
The science programme and logistics on the five-year programme begins in October and continues to 2023.