British and US scientists are to collaborate on a £20m project to examine the Thwaites glacier in west Antarctica, a major glacier that drains an area about the size of the UK.
The collapse of the glacier could begin within the next few decades or centuries. Understanding more about the likely timing should help the researchers to predict future sea-level rises under global warming. The Thwaites glacier alone is thought to have accounted for about 4% of global sea-level rises, doubling its contribution since the mid-1990s.
Melting ice in Antarctica has different effects from the melting observed in the Arctic, because the glaciers in the southern polar regions are on land, whereas the Arctic ice cap is above the sea. When Antarctic glaciers melt, they contribute directly to sea-level rises, but the extent to which melting is occurring and the effects of it are still insufficiently understood for scientists to make predictions of the effects of climate change on them.
The funds will be used by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council and the National Science Foundation of the US, involving about 100 scientists, in the biggest joint project by the two countries in Antarctica since the end of a mapping project in the region in the late 1940s. Researchers from other countries, including South Korea, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland, will also contribute.
UK science minister Sam Gyimah said: “Rising sea levels are a globally important issue, which cannot be tackled by one country alone. The Thwaites glacier already contributes to rising sea levels, and understanding its likely collapse in the coming century is vitally important.”
William Easterling, assistant director for the National Science Foundation’s Geosciences directorate in the US, added: “Satellites show the Thwaites region is changing rapidly, but to answer the key questions of how much, and how quickly, sea level will change in the future requires scientists on the ground with sophisticated equipment collecting the data we need to measure rates of ice volume and ice mass change. The challenges of conducting fieldwork of this scope and scale in such remote locations are enormous.”
The five-year project will begin this October, and the data gathered will be shared with other scientists.