Understanding one of the most unstable glaciers in Antarctica

Cracked ice landscape, abstract

Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and US National Science Foundation (NSF) are collaborating to investigate one of the most unstable and rapidly changing glaciers in Antarctica, roughly the same size as Florida or Britain.

The NERC and NSF partnership, called the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), covers research across Thwaites Glacier and its adjacent ocean region; the glacier flows into Pine Island Bay, part of Amundsen Sea.

ITGC is the largest joint UK-US project undertaken on the southern continent in 70 years.

Over the past 30 years, the amount of ice flowing out of this 120-kilometer-wide region has nearly doubled.

Warm ocean water from the Amundsen Sea circulates under the ice, causing it to melt. Melting loosens the ice from the bedrock below, causing it to flow faster and eventually to retreat into the deeper and thicker ice areas where it is likely to speed up still more.

Starting in 2018 and lasting over five years, teams of scientists are exploring the ocean and marine sediments, measuring currents flowing toward the deep ice and examining the stretching, bending and grinding of the glacier over the landscape below. The project will involve more than 60 scientists and students.

The ITGC has a number of related projects, each aiming to build a better understanding of the glacier and its environment, and transmit that new knowledge to the public, the wider science community and policymakers.

For example, four of the projects are focused on natural processes that drive the glacier to retreat or control its response to climate. Better awareness of these key processes, such as ocean-driven melting of the ice, ice flow over the bedrock, or shearing within the ice sheet along the sides of the glacier, is critical to improving models of the glaciers’ future behaviour.

Last updated: 11 March 2021

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