UC Santa Cruz glaciologist leads project to study Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier

Earth sciences professor Slawek Tulaczyk will lead one of eight projects in a joint U.S.-U.K. research program to understand how quickly the massive Antarctic glacier could collapse

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The rate of ice loss from the massive Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica has doubled since the 1990s. (Photo by Jeremy Harbeck)

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Glaciologist Slawek Tulaczyk has been studying the West Antarctic ice sheet for nearly two decades.

Thwaites Glacier has been called the “weak underbelly” of the West Antarctic ice sheet because of its potential to abruptly increase the amount of ice flowing into the ocean, significantly affecting global sea levels. Draining an area roughly the size of Britain or Florida, Thwaites Glacier already accounts for around 4 percent of global sea-level rise, and satellite measurements show that its rate of ice loss has doubled since the 1990s.

Yet this glacier is remote even by Antarctic standards and remains poorly understood. To unravel its mysteries, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.K. Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) are launching the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), a $25 million initiative supporting the efforts of about 100 scientists working on eight different research projects to help predict the future evolution of Thwaites Glacier and assess the sensitivity of the Antarctic ice sheet to changes in climate.

Slawek Tulaczyk, professor of Earth sciences at UC Santa Cruz, will serve as the U.S. leader of the Thwaites Interdisciplinary Margin Evolution (TIME) project, involving 11 U.S. and U.K. scientists. The researchers will use precision GPS, seismic, and radar instrumentation to collect new data on the current behavior and future evolution of the side margins of Thwaites Glacier. These new data will help improve computer models used to predict the future contribution of the West Antarctic ice sheet to global sea level changes.

“Side margins of large glaciers like Thwaites control how rapidly ice flows from the Antarctic ice sheet into the ocean,” Tulaczyk explained. “This international research effort will enable us to collect new data that will result in more reliable predictions of future sea level changes. I feel very privileged to have this opportunity to address an important scientific problem while working with an excellent group of highly skilled scientists in one of the most remote locations on Earth.”

Tulaczyk has been studying the West Antarctic ice sheet for nearly two decades, most recently as co-leader of a major NSF-funded project to drill beneath the ice sheet and examine subglacial environments (the WISSARD project).

The TIME project has received $3.4 million in funding, including $2.4 million from NSF for the U.S. investigators and $1 million from NERC for the U.K. investigators. The U.K. co-leader of the project is Poul Christoffersen of the University of Cambridge, who will focus on ice-penetrating radar data collection with Dustin Schroder of Stanford University. Seismic investigations will involve Adam Booth at University of Leeds, U.K.; Galen Kaip, Marianne Karplus, and Steven Harder at University of Texas, El Paso; and Norimitsu Nakata and Jacob Walter at University of Oklahoma. The development of improved computer models will be executed by Marion Bougamont at University of Cambridge and Jenny Suckale at Stanford University.

In addition to funding for 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 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) away, so getting the scientists to where they need to be will take a major joint effort from both nations. While researchers on the ice will rely on aircraft support from U.K. and U.S. research stations, oceanographers and geophysicists will approach the glacier from the sea in U.K. and U.S. research icebreakers.

“For more than a decade, satellites have identified this area as a region of massive ice loss and rapid change. But there are still many aspects of the ice and ocean that cannot be determined from space,” said Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the lead U.S. scientific coordinator of ITGC. “We need to go there, with a robust scientific plan of activity, and learn more about how this area is changing in detail, so we can reduce the uncertainty of what might happen in the future.”

The five-year program will begin in October 2018.