A team of 100 scientists are travelling to West Antarctica to study the Thwaites glacier—the Antarctic ice sheet most at risk of melting in the near-future, writes Paul Voosen for Science. The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration is a $50 million effort, put together by U.S. and U.K science agencies. Six teams will be deployed to the remote ice sheet where they will study it using tools that include instrument-carrying seals, and earth-sensing seismographs.
Thwaites, a 182,000-square-kilometer glacier in the Amundsen Sea, acts a plug that blocks the rest of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet from escaping into the ocean, explains Voosen. The collapse of this sheet would be irreversible and increase sea levels by 3.3 meters over the course of centuries. “It could contribute to seal level in our lifetimes in a large way, in a scale of a meter of sea leve rise,” says Sridhar Anandakrishnan, a glacial seismologist at Pennsylvania State University, who is co-leading one of the Thwaites projects.
The teams will focus on what puts Thwaites at risk. Anandakrishnan’s team will study the composition of the continental shelf at the base of the glacier by detonating explosives and using seismic sensors to determine whether the rock beneath Thwaites is soft and pliable, or hard and crystalline. Another team will outfit 10 seals with scientific instruments to make routine studies of the ocean. Other projects will seek geological evidence of whether Thwaites has previously retreated and reformed in the past 10,000 years. “We’ll see what until now has been inferred playing out right in front of our sensors,” says Ted Scambos the lead U.S. scientific coordinator.