The UK and US have jointly launched a five-year research programme this week to study one of the world’s largest – and, potentially, most vulnerable – glaciers.
The £20m project will focus on the Thwaites glacier in west Antarctica, which is roughly the size of Florida. Around 100 scientists will collect a wide range of data from under, above and atop the glacier up to 2023.
The programme is being funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the US National Science Foundation (NSF). The goal will be to “investigate the implications of a major glacier collapse on future sea level rise”.
Thwaites already accounts for about 4% of global sea level rise – and this rate has doubled since the 1990s. As a result, the Washington Post described it this week as “the world’s most dangerous glacier”.
The official launch of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration took place at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in Cambridge on Monday. (Video of the press conference below.)
Carbon Brief spoke to Prof Sridhar Anandakrishnan, a glaciologist at Penn State’s department of geosciences.
Anandakrishnan is one of the handful of scientists who have already visited the glacier. He is the co-lead of the GHOST (Geophysical Habitat of Subglacial Thwaites) project, one of eight which form the new research programme. (Another project will see the deployment under the glacier of the ocean submersible famously named “Boaty McBoatface”.)
GHOST will “examine the bed beneath the Thwaites Glacier, to assess whether conditions are likely to allow rapid retreat, or if the retreat may slow or stop due to a ridge 70km inland”. The scientists are particularly keen to investigate whether the retreat of Thwaites could trigger a wider deglaciation of the neighbouring glacier basins, potentially raising global sea level “by more than 3 metres”.
Carbon Brief asked Anandakrishnan why it is so important for scientists to study Thwaites and what, specifically, he would be doing as co-lead of the GHOST project.
Anandakrishnan also gives a sense of what it is like to visit Thwaites, one of the world’s most remote places:
“It’s like no place on Earth…There’s no one else for 200 miles in any direction.”
Video: Why studying Thwaites glacier is vital for forecasting sea level rise
Video: Studying ‘world’s most dangerous glacier’ is vital for forecasting sea level rise