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Science

The joint UK-US research program launched on April 30, 2018, is one of the most detailed and extensive examinations of a massive Antarctic glacier ever undertaken.

The collapse of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica could significantly affect global sea levels. It already drains an area roughly the size of Britain (or the US state of Florida) and accounts for around 4% of global sea level rise - an amount that has doubled since the mid-1990s.

As part of a new $25 (£20) million research collaboration, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) will deploy scientists to gather data needed to understand whether the glacier's collapse could begin in the next few decades or centuries.

embed 1 carousel thwaites glacier usnsfReconnaissance flight over the Thwaites Glacier

The research collaboration called the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), was announced at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) headquarters in Cambridge, England. The collaboration's scientists will begin their first research season in Antarctica in October, establishing a logistical support structure for future work, and will continue until 2021.

EMBED 2 thwaites glacier infographic hiReducing Scientific Uncertainty

Reducing scientific uncertainty about the likelihood, timing, and magnitude of the collapse of West Antarctic glaciers is an international priority recently underscored by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research in its report Horizon Scan 2020. A recent report by the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine cited that a top priority for Antarctic research should be the development of enhanced capabilities to predict ice loss.

"Satellites show the Thwaites region is changing rapidly," said William Easterling, NSF assistant director for Geosciences.."To answer the key questions of how much and how quickly sea level will change requires scientists on the ground with sophisticated equipment collecting the data we need to measure rates of ice-volume or ice-mass change. The challenges of conducting fieldwork of this scope and scale in such remote locations are enormous. The only practical way for nations to do this is to work collaboratively, each bringing scientific and logistical resources to enable complex and comprehensive field studies."

The Office of Polar Programs in NSF's Geosciences Directorate manages the US Antarctic Program which will support the collaboration's researchers and provide US logistics for the project.

"The fate of the Thwaites Glacier is one the big unknowns in Antarctic science," said Duncan Wingham, NERC's chief executive. "We currently do not know enough about the likelihood, timing and magnitude of the collapse of West Antarctic glaciers such as Thwaites to be able to plan accordingly. NERC and NSF, working together, are uniquely placed to attempt to reduce the scientific uncertainty about these unknowns, providing answers to one of the most important questions facing us about global sea level rise."

The Largest Antarctic Project in 70 Years

The ITGC is the most extensive joint project undertaken by the two nations in Antarctica in more than 70 years, since the conclusion of a mapping project on the Antarctic Peninsula in the late 1940s. The collaboration involves about 100 scientists from the world's foremost research institutes in both countries alongside researchers from other nations, including South Korea, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland, who will contribute to the various projects.

"Whilst Antarctica seems far away, what is happening there is already affecting sea levels around the world," said David Vaughan, director of science at the British Antarctic Survey and lead scientific coordinator for the UK. "UK and US scientists have a track record of working well together on the ice, and together we have a unique opportunity to change our understanding of Antarctica, and to make a difference by helping to provide the information we need to help protect coastal cities, ecosystems, and vulnerable communities around the world."

Antarctica's glaciers contribute to sea level rise when more ice is lost to the ocean than snow replaces. A full understanding of the causes of changes in ice flow requires study of the ice itself, the nearby ocean, and the Antarctic climate in the region.

In addition to the $25 (£20) million in awards to the research teams, the costs of the logistics of mounting a scientific campaign in one of the most remote places in Antarctica will increase the commitment significantly. The nearest permanently occupied research station to the Thwaites Glacier is roughly 900 miles (1,600km) away - transporting the scientists to the research site will take a massive joint effort from both nations. While researchers on the ice will rely on aircraft support from UK and US research stations, oceanographers and geophysicists will approach the glacier from the sea aboard research icebreakers.

The program will deploy the most up-to-date instruments and techniques available, from drills that can bore access holes 1,500 meters into the ice to autonomous submarines such as the Autosub Long Range, affectionately known around the world as Boaty McBoatface.

Kelly Falkner, director of NSF's Office of Polar Programs, noted that the US Antarctic program has "decades of experience in supporting large-scale international research initiatives -- from building the world's largest neutrino detector at the South Pole to supporting ice-core and sediment drilling projects that provide glimpses into the thawing and freezing of Antarctica over timescales of millions of years."

Despite the challenges, the only practical way to understand what changes are underway at the Thwaites is to go there, said lead US scientific coordinator, Ted Scambos from the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado. He continues, "For more than a decade, satellites have identified this area as a region of massive ice loss and rapid change. But there are still many aspects of the ice and ocean that cannot be determined from space. We need to go there, with a robust scientific plan of activity, and learn more about how this area is changing in detail, so we can reduce the uncertainty of what might happen in the future."

NSF and NERC, through the ITGC, are jointly funding eight research projects and a coordination grant. The data gathered by ITGC will be archived and freely shared at the end of the program to help future understanding of the area.