Thwaites Glacier is one of the most remote parts of the Antarctic (which is saying a lot) and yet its fate is intimately tied with millions of people around the world. The glacier is the bulwark against ice stored on West Antarctica. If it collapses, it could destabilise the region’s ice and send sea levels spiralling up to three metres higher.
Yet for all its importance, very few people had ever set foot on its icy shoulders until this austral summer. A team comprised of 100 researchers from the US and UK was deployed to the glacier in November, and they recently completed groundbreaking fieldwork, including a host of firsts including the first-ever ice cores and first-ever footage captured under the ice. The trove of data they’re bringing back could help reveal how imminent the risk of Thwaites’ collapse is.
Thwaites Glacier is one of the horsemen of the climate apocalypse. It spills down from the heights of the West Antarctic ice sheet into the Amundsen Sea. The area where it meets the sea is where the apocalypse is playing out. It may look slow motion to the human eye but a snap of the fingers in geologic time.
“Thwaites is a superhighway delivering ice to the ocean,” Robin Bell, an Antarctic researcher at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told Gizmodo.
The location where sea ice and Antarctic bedrock meet is known as the grounding line, and what’s happening there holds the key to unlocking the fate of the glacier as well as the ice behind it. There’s a unique and unfortunate quirk to the bedrock Thwaites Glacier sits on before extending over the sea: it slopes downward. That has allowed warming seawater to swirl in under the glacier and carve out a progressively larger cavity, which in turn has made the remaining ice hanging over the water increasingly unstable and could speed its collapse.
There’s been modelling of what that process – dubbed marine ice-cliff instability if you want to be nerdy about it – could look like and measurements have been taken using satellites and aircraft equipped with ice-penetrating equipment. Based on those measurements, researchers are well aware that Antarctica is losing ice at a quickening pace, shedding three trillion tonnes over the past 25 years. Thwaites is at the epicentre of those losses, and getting a robot inside that cavity offered a heretofore unseen view of an unfolding crisis.
“It’s the first time anyone has done that or has ever even seen the grounding zone of a major glacier under the water, and that’s the place where the greatest degree of melting and destabilisation can occur,” Britney Schmidt, an ITGC collaborator from Georgia Tech, said in a statement.
Photo: David Vaughan, British Antarctic Survey
To get the project underway was no easy task. Thwaites Glacier sits 1,600 kilometres from the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera Research Station and US Arctic Programme’s McMurdo Station, the main home bases for Antarctic scientists from those respective countries. Scientists began the arduous journey to Thwaites from those stations in November, following a daisy chain of research sites to establish new camps on the glacier in late December.
In addition to the 100 researchers’ supplies to cover their basic needs, they also brought unique research equipment with them to take a closer look at the glacier. That includes a hot water drill to bore clear through Thwaites Glacier down to the sea beneath it as well as a robot vehicle they dropped down the borehole to explore the waters. The research is part of a five-year collaboration known as the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC).
Hot water drilling requires the team to melt snow in large rubber tanks. Photo: David Vaughan, British Antarctic Survey
Both efforts are the first of their kind. The video is mesmerising to watch on some level, with ice and water creating a funhouse effect where it’s impossible to tell where the ice ends and water begins. Fish and other weird creatures float in the water as the robot whirs by. The footage feels otherworldly, which is fitting since Icefin’s ultimate goal is to explore the icy oceans of other worlds in our solar system one day. But it’s very much Earth, and it’s very much a huge leap for science and our understanding of humanity’s fate.
“Her [Schmidt’s] video is like seeing the surface of the moon for the first time,” Bell said. “The video gives me goosebumps.”
While the underwater footage is the main attraction, the scientists also pinged Thwaites’ ice with seismic and radar instruments and drilled multiples holes as well. In one case, they took a sediment core from the seafloor below that will help provide an even deeper look into the history of Thwaites Glacier and the surrounding sea.
That history will end up telling us a lot about the future we face.