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article imageU.S. and UK join forces in biggest ever Antarctic field campaign

By Karen Graham     Apr 30, 2018 in Science
The UK's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) are getting ready to deploy about 100 scientists to the Thwaites glacier in West Antarctica as part of a five-year study to find out how fast it is melting.
Thwaites Glacier is an unusually large glacier in West Antarctica that flows into Pine Island Bay, part of the Amundsen Sea. And according to the NSF, Thwaites drains an area about the size of Britain or the state of Florida, accounting for about 4 percent of global sea level rise -- an amount that has doubled since the mid-1990s.
Because of concerns that the glacier is going into irreversible retreat, the NSF and NERC are funding the two nations' biggest cooperative venture in Antarctica in more than 70 years At a cost of $25 million, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC) announced it will be sending its first expedition to the Antarctic in October this year.
The Thwaites Glacier part of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet is undergoing accelerated melt along with...
The Thwaites Glacier part of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet is undergoing accelerated melt along with a number of other glaciers that could see sea levels rise by between 10 and 13 feet.
The teams will be establishing a logistical support structure for future work. The collaboration will continue until 2021. The BBC reports that once the costs of transport and resupply to this remotest of regions is factored in, the total value of the ITGC will probably top $40 million.
Reducing the uncertainty
The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), in its report, Horizon Scan 2020, underscored the need for reducing scientific uncertainty about the likelihood, timing, and magnitude of the collapse of West Antarctic glaciers, adding that it was an international priority.
"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."
Actually, we don't know for a fact just how long it will take for Thwaites to melt completely. It could be decades or centuries. But we do know from climate models that if the glacier does melt, sea levels could rise more than 30 inches. But keep in mind that even a 12-inch rise in sea levels would flood out a vast number of coastal cities and towns.
So, it is important that we find out everything we can about Thwaites, just like we are studying how the Antarctic ice sheet's submarine edge, or "grounding line", is shifting, as reported by Digital Journal on April 2, 2018.
The expedition to Thwaites
While climate modeling plays an important role in climate studies, the need for real-world information is all the more important, and to that end, the program will deploy the most up-to-date instruments and techniques available, from drills that can bore access holes 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) into the ice to autonomous submarines such as the Autosub Long Range, affectionately known around the world as Boaty McBoatface.
In 2017  everyone s favourite yellow submarine Boaty McBoatface returned home with unprecedented dat...
In 2017, everyone's favourite yellow submarine Boaty McBoatface returned home with unprecedented data about some of the coldest abyssal ocean waters on earth – known as Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW).
British Antarctic Survey
The U.S. 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," notes Kelly Falkner, director of NSF's Office of Polar Programs.
And while the funding is coming from NERC and The NSF, the over 100 scientists involved will be 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 U.K. He points out how well U.S. and UK researchers have always worked together in Antarctic research.
He adds, "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."
More about Thwaites glacier, west antarctica, Climate change, National Science Foundation, natural environment research council
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