Scientists Begin Mission to Study “Doomsday Glacier”

Thwaites glacier. | Image from CIRES

On Thursday, thirty-two scientists embarked on a journey to “the place in the world that’s hardest to get to” in Antarctica. The team’s two-month-long mission, taking place on board an American research ship, is to study the Thwaites glacier.

The glacier, which is the size of Florida, could lose significant amounts of ice over time because of warming ocean water. It got its nickname the “doomsday glacier” because of the massive amount of ice it encompasses and how much the sea level could potentially rise if it all melts: an estimated two feet over hundreds of years.

Because of the potential danger the glacier imposes, the United States and the United Kingdom are working together on a $50 million joint mission to study and investigate Thwaites, the widest glacier in the world.

“Thwaites is the main reason I would say that we have so large an uncertainty in the projections of future sea-level rise and that is because it’s a very remote area, difficult to reach,” said Anna Wahlin, an oceanographer from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. “It is configured in a way so that it’s potentially unstable. And that is why we are worried about this.”

Thwaites dump about 50 billion tons of ice into the ocean every year. According to data from the British Antarctic Survey, the massive glacier is responsible for 4% of global sea-level rise, and the melting conditions seem to be accelerating.

According to Erin Pettit, an ice scientist at Oregon State University, there are three ways that Thwaites appear to be collapsing. First, the glacier is melting from below because of the ocean water. Second, the land part of the glacier is becoming loose and unattached to the seabed, therefore creating the potential for large chunks to fall into the ocean and melt. Third, the glacier’s ice shelf is breaking into hundreds of small fractures, which Pettit fears will be the most troublesome.

The scientists on the mission will use two robot ships to gain access underneath Thwaites. The vessels will measure water temperature, ice thickness, and the seafloor and will examine the cracks in the ice.

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