In January, unique footage emerged from Antarctica – the first images of the sub-marine grounding line of a glacier. The footage came from Icefin – a robotic device being used to research what some glaciologists have labelled the ‘most important’ and ‘riskiest’ glacier in the world – Thwaites. The research is part of one of eight projects of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC) – an ambitious five-year UK/US scientific partnership which began in May 2018.
Dr Andy Smith, a senior glaciologist at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), explains that the partnership is an example of effective collaboration. ‘This is unique – I’ve never done anything like this in my career before – I think this could be the biggest US/UK collaboration in Antarctica ever. A long time ago I think it was a failing within a lot of scientific research for everyone to do their own research and not talk to each other but this region is such a large issue, it was a no brainer for the two nations to work together.’ The aim of the research is to improve our understanding and reduce uncertainty in the projection of sea level rise from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet – an endeavour which is critical given that Thwaites drains an area the size of Britain, accounting for around four per cent of global sea-level rise —an amount that has doubled since the mid-1990s.
A complex interplay of topography, climatic change and ocean currents have coalesced to make the western regions of Antarctica (where Thwaites is situated) particularly vulnerable. Topography is critical when it comes to the reasons why Thwaites is acutely exposed. Antarctica is often split into East and West – not simply to make the vast continent easier to represent but because there are fundamental differences between the regions. ‘East Antarctica is principally a large continent with mountain ranges and thick ice, but west Antarctica is more like an archipelago of islands – predominantly below sea level and vulnerable to change,’ explains Smith.
The increased presence of warmer water, carried towards the southern polar regions by ocean conveyors, is exacerbating issues. Usually, the continental shelf keeps the warm water in the deep ocean surrounding the continent. In recent decades, however, more warm water has got over the continental shelf and flowed down towards the ice. If the warm water thins the ice, it also opens up a larger gap underneath the sheet, exposing more of the underlying ice and potentially precipitating an accelerated rate of retreat.
Thwaites is of particular interest not only due to its scale and the underlying topography but also due to what it is supporting. ‘Thwaites has access to a massive inland reservoir of ice and so changes to Thwaites could affect the whole ice sheet,’ says Smith. ‘Other glaciers are still important, but they don’t have the same potential to have such a significant impact on sea level rise.’ Ice draining from Thwaites accounts for approximately four per cent of global sea-level rise and the collapse of the glacier could potentially cause global sea levels to rise by up to 80cm.
The data and findings from this research will be brought back and analysed in the coming months and while this information is hugely important, how the findings are translated and communicated to the public and to policy makers is equally critical . ‘Thwaites is quite a good example because this is one glacier that we can explain how if this glacier collapses, sea levels will increase by 80cm,’ says Athena Dinar, senior science communications manager at the BAS. ‘It can show financiers or politicians that if this one glacier does have a tipping point, this is what our world is going to look like’.
The BAS are looking at attending COP26 in Glasgow to highlight the work they have done through the ITGC. However, they are mindful of maintaining their position as an impartial, independent information provider. ‘We obviously want to engage with politicians and policy makers – we’re not stepping back from them,’ says Smith, ‘we’ve just got to be careful that we don’t end up getting used politically’. Smith brings up the Thames Barrier as an example of UK infrastructure that will need to be modified in response to rising sea levels. ‘At some stage decisions will have to be made by politicians on, amongst other things, how big a replacement has to be and when we need to start building it. These are big decisions and we try to provide the best advice based on our predictions of sea level rise’.
Smith’s own work will begin later this year. He’s involved in a project called GHOST – or Geophysical Habitat of Subglacial Thwaites – which will examine the bed and interior of Thwaites Glacier. The study will investigate whether the region of fast-flowing ice could expand to affect the slow-flowing regions, leading to a rapid deglaciation of neighbouring basins which could potentially raise global sea levels by up to three metres. The research will mark the 23rd time Smith has visited the continent but, as he explains, these ‘trips’ are far from easy. ‘We do a lot of digging. With frequent storms and hostile conditions, we often have to clear snow on a daily basis. In fact, on many trips the most important tool isn’t necessarily the complex technology – it’s a shovel. Without the shovel you often can’t do anything else!’
The work being undertaken on Antarctica in the coming years will be instrumental in determining the future of the continent, and the planet. Given the potential implications of the collapse of Thwaites Glacier, the saliency of the work cannot be overstated. Never has the modest shovel held such responsibility.