In the summer of 2019, 100 U.K. and U.S. Scientists will descend upon Western Antarctica to begin work on what will be the largest joint scientific study in Antarctica since the 1940’s. Known as the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, named after the glacier the effort is focused on, the study will take place during the Antarctic summers of 2019–20 and 2020–21.
Thwaites ice bridge. Credit: NASA photograph by Jim Yungel
Based on satellite observations and various computer models, scientists believe the Thwaites Glacier is at the greatest risk of accelerated melting in the next century. The goal is to study this in person, something that its remote location, around 1,000 miles from the nearest research station, has prevented them from doing.
At 113,000-square-miles, or around the size of Arizona, the glacier serves to block the rest of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet from flowing into the ocean. Because of this, the Thwaites Glacier plays a wildcard role in models designed to predict sea level changes. Melt from Thwaites already accounts for about 4% of sea level rise and if it retreats enough the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could collapse and ultimately cause a rise of up to 3.3 meters over the next centuries or millennium. To put it simply, the sooner the Thwaites Glacier melts, the more trouble we're in.
At a cost of 50 million dollars, the studies planned are impressive to say the least. One of the experiments will involve setting off explosions and taking seismic readings to find out the composition of the ridge below and thus the likelihood of the glacier grabbing a foothold instead of sliding off completely. Another will involve drilling sensors deep into the ice and having self-driving submersibles glide towards them. Scientists are going to drill 800 meters into the glacier, then send a newly designed piece of equipment through the bore hole to study where ice, ocean and rock meet. And straight out of a science fiction story, seals will be outfitted with scientific instruments, allowing for repeated studies of the area.
This is all without mentioning the incredible difficulty of getting to and surviving in Antarctica. Check out this video from Wendover Productions, which gives a small glimpse into the lives of scientists who work on the frozen continent.