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Thwaites glacier mission gets under way


By Mike Scialom


The Hugin submersible (AUV) as it was being prepared for deployment in Antarctic waters
The Hugin submersible (AUV) as it was being prepared for deployment in Antarctic waters

The British Antarctic Survey is celebrating its 75th anniversary this month, but it's not looking backwards for too long - it currently has the eyes of the world on it, thanks to its just-launched study of ice melt under the Thwaites Glacier.

RV Nathaniel B Palmer having sailed through the Strait of Magellan and Drake’s Passage – where the ice is building up – to Antarctica to carry out the most detailed study of Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, which is at risk of collapse. If it melted, sea levels would rise by up to 80cms.

Its findings could literally make the difference between life and death for millions of people, along with the ecosystem on the southern-most part of the globe. The chief scientist is BAS marine geophysicist Rob Larter, who updated the Cambridge Independent while on board.

“The research cruise on the American RV Nathaniel B Palmer (cruise NBP19-02) involves three International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration projects,” he said. “TARSAN involves physical oceanography, involving use of an autonomous submersible, sea gliders and attaching sensor tags to seals. THOR is marine geology and geophysics – this is the project I am the UK principal investigator of. GHC is determining changes in relative sea level near Thwaites Glacier.

The Thwaites Glacier and the work being carried on in the current extraordinary mission
The Thwaites Glacier and the work being carried on in the current extraordinary mission

“The cruise has started well. We had a successful trial deployment of the HUGIN autonomous underwater vehicle before leaving the sheltered waters of the Strait of Magellan.

“There are four of us among the scientific party of 26 who are based at BAS. In addition to myself, marine geophysicist Kelly Hogan and PhD student James Kirkham are also part of the THOR project team, and Mark Barham from the BAS polar oceans team is on board to recover and redeploy several oceanographic moorings in the area.”

Rob adds: “We reached the Amundsen Sea continental shelf yesterday (February 10), and today field parties made their first small boat landings on the Edward Islands. Colleagues onshore are preparing to carry out an airborne geophysical survey over the glacier.”

British Antarctic Survey marine geophysicist Dr Rob Larter. Picture: Keith Heppell
British Antarctic Survey marine geophysicist Dr Rob Larter. Picture: Keith Heppell

On the way the crew deployed an ocean glider “to measure the water fluxes through the gateway between Burke Islands and the Edward Islands”.

Watch this space as more dramatic developments unfold in this game-changing scientific study.



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