Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Investigating Thwaites: the riskiest glacier on Earth

  • Written by  Angus Parker
  • Published in Polar
Investigating Thwaites: the riskiest glacier on Earth
10 Mar
2020
 Dubbed the riskiest glacier on Earth, an ongoing project to learn more about Thwaites is vital to ensure the accuracy of sea-level rise predictions

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.

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR MONTHLY PRINT MAGAZINE!
Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

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.

MAP shutterstock 281790236 Converted

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.

Melting ice in giant water tanks David VaughanThe team melt ice in giant water tanks [David Vaughan]

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.

Tents on Thwaites Glacier David VaughanTents on Thwaites Glacier [Image: David Vaughan]

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’.

The hot water drill rig and Icefin David VaughanThe hot water drill rig and Icefin [Image: David Vaughan]

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.

Stay connected with the Geographical newsletter!
signup buttonIn these turbulent times, we’re committed to telling expansive stories from across the globe, highlighting the everyday lives of normal but extraordinary people. Stay informed and engaged with Geographical.

Get Geographical’s latest news delivered straight to your inbox every Friday!

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Climate

Climate change is bringing earlier, dangerous 'false springs', longer summers…

Wildlife

A victory for conservation, South Africa has announced plans to…

Energy

The UK has made little progress decarbonising heating, but a significant source…

Nature

The concept of 'natural capital', where the value of nature…

Geophoto

Prestigious photography competition returns for a fourth year

Climate

Founded in the USA by Denis Hayes, Earth Day became…

Geophoto

Tom Goldner's project Do Brumbies Dream in Red? is an intimate portrayal…

Wildlife

Not your usual tune: translating spider's silk into sound could…

Oceans

Millions of oysters have been rescued from the struggling shellfish…

Climate

History is littered with examples of fungi helping to digest…

Geophoto

The streets of Philadelphia are home to a small and forgotten…

Geophoto

When photographer Matthew Maran first snapped a fox he had…

Wildlife

Coloradans have voted to reintroduce grey wolves to the state

Energy

Covid-19 provides an opportunity to re-assess the supply chains of…

Geophoto

Andrea DiCenzo is a photojournalist, who has covered conflicts for…

Oceans

Field observations of corals around the world reveal that not…

Climate

The Great Plains of the USA are once again getting…

Climate

Attempts to build a digital twin of the Earth could…

Oceans

Food systems will need to change as the global population…