Ambitious Antarctic field campaign begins

Ambitious Antarctic field campaign begins

One of the largest Antarctic field missions in 70 years has begun, to understand the contribution a huge melting glacier will make to global sea levels.

Scientists are concerned that a collapse of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica could significantly raise global sea levels. 

The five year quest to understand the glacier's contribution to sea levels will see a team of UK and US polar scientists embark on one of the largest joint Antarctic missions for more than 70 years. Support teams will cover about 7000 km in extremely cold and hostile conditions as they get field camps and supply depots set up and ready for the arrival of science teams.

The mighty Thwaites Glacier in the west of the continent is comparable in size to Britain. It is melting and is currently in rapid retreat, accounting for around 4% of global sea-level rise - an amount that has doubled since the mid-1990s.

The £20 million research collaboration, funded by the UK Research and Innovation’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the US National Science Foundation, involves over 100 scientists and support staff. 

Thwaites Glacier is extremely remote and difficult to reach.  It is equidistant from the US McMurdo Station and UK’s British Antarctic Survey (BAS) Rothera Research Station. Each research station is more than 1600km away from the study sites on the glacier. Getting science and support teams to where they need to be is a massive joint operation involving tractor traverses, aircraft operations and ship-borne support.

Professor David Vaughan, Director of Science at BAS is the UK’s lead scientific coordinator.  He says:

“This is a tremendously exciting mission, and a fantastic example of how two nations can combine their scientific and operational expertise to tackle one of the big questions facing society today and in the future.  I’ve been working in Antarctica for over 30 years and for much of that time we’ve known that Thwaites Glacier holds the key to a much better understanding of sea-level rise.  This is our first chance to get a deeper understanding of this ‘wild card’ in West Antarctica.  I believe that this joint effort will make a real difference to our ability to provide governments with the right information for policy and business actions that will help protect coastal cities, ecosystems and vulnerable communities in the future.”

The five-year programme begins in November 2018 and continues to 2023. During the coming Antarctic field season a suite of scientific investigations will take place at sea, in the air and on the ice.

In early 2019, four large tracked vehicles, 14 snow mobiles, many sledges, two living cabooses, fuel and nearly 5000 days of food will be off-loaded at the ice edge by the British Antarctic Survey’s logistics ship RRS Ernest Shackleton with support from the Royal Navy polar patrol ship HMS Protector. A team of field support staff will then establish a depot before traversing south to set up two additional camps.

Over 20 researchers will set sail in late January on the US icebreaker Nathaniel B Palmer. Research teams on board will map the seafloor – using swath bathymetry - around the ice front of Thwaites Glacier to see how the shape of the bed affected the glacier’s behaviour in the past. They will collect sediment cores from the seabed, which will reveal the extent to which past glacier retreat has been driven by interactions with the ocean, and will deploy ocean gliders and autonomous vehicles to collect data to discover how the glacier interacts with the ocean today. Tagged Weddell and Elephant seals that haul out on nearby islands will capture data about their behaviour and the ocean conditions where they dive.

Science teams will collect samples of rock, penguin bones, algae and shells from nearby islands to carbon date them so they can determine how sea level has changed in the past 5000 years. All this information will improve reliability of the ice sheet models that are used to predict future sea level change.

Further information

Read more on the NERC website.

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