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UEA joins new study into Antarctic glaciers

Researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) are part of an international research project to understand how quickly a massive Antarctic glacier could collapse.

The £20 million project will try to understand how quickly the enormous Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica could collapse and how this could significantly affect global sea levels. It already drains an area roughly the size of Britain or the US state of Florida, accounting for around four per cent of global sea-level rise - an amount that has doubled since the mid-1990s. 

The project, launched today, is one of the most detailed and extensive examinations of a massive Antarctic glacier ever undertaken. 

The international collaboration involves around 100 scientists from world-leading research institutes in UK and the US alongside researchers from South Korea, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland.

The UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) will deploy scientists to gather the data needed to understand whether the glacier’s collapse could begin in the next few decades or centuries.

Researchers at UEA will lead the project codenamed TARSAN (Thwaites-Amundsen Regional Survey and Network), which will investigate how the ocean and atmosphere are affecting the glacier. To do this, they will use underwater robots called Seagliders to measure ocean circulation and thinning beneath the floating part of the glacier.

Prof Karen Heywood, from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, said: “Our ambitious project is the only one of the eight projects that will look simultaneously at the atmosphere, the ice, and the ocean.

“We are going to study two floating ice shelves - Thwaites and the nearby Dotson ice shelf - that behave in different ways. This will enable us to understand why they behave differently - the ocean under one ice shelf might be different, for example colder, or the underside of the ice shelf might be different, for example rougher. 

“We are going to send the UK’s autonomous submarine, nicknamed Boaty McBoatface, underneath the ice shelves to investigate.

“TARSAN is a big international project, led by UEA and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, which will keep us busy for the next five years. Interestingly it is the only one of the eight projects led by women scientists! 

“We are looking forward to working together, and with the other groups involved in TARSAN including the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

“We will be taking their version of Boaty McBoatface to the Antarctic in early 2019 for its first adventure in ice covered regions,” she added.

NERC and NSF have jointly funded eight large-scale projects that will bring together leading polar scientists in one of the most inhospitable regions of the planet. 

The programme, called the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), is the largest joint project undertaken by the two nations in Antarctica for more than 70 years - since the conclusion of a mapping project on the Antarctic Peninsula in the late 1940s.

Antarctica’s glaciers contribute to sea-level rise when more ice is lost to the ocean than is replaced by snow. To understand the causes of changes in ice flow requires research on the ice itself, the nearby ocean, and the Antarctic climate in the region. 

The programme will deploy the most up-to-date instruments and techniques available, from drills that can make access holes 1,500 metres into the ice with jets of hot water to autonomous submarines like the Autosub Long Range affectionately known around the world as Boaty McBoatface.

In addition to £20 million-worth of awards to the research teams, the logistics of mounting a scientific campaign in one of the most remote places in Antarctica could cost as much again in logistical support.

The nearest permanently occupied research station to the Thwaites Glacier is more than 1600km away, so getting the scientists to where they need to be 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 in UK and US research icebreakers. 

Image credit: flickr - NASA/James Yungel

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