First-Ever Images at Foundation of Notorious Antarctic Glacier

ITGC researchers retrieve the robotic submarine Icefin.

ITGC researchers Britney Schmidt and Andy Mullen retrieve the robotic submarine Icefin after its last dive to the seafloor foundations of Thwaites Glacier. Icefin was engineered in Schmidt's lab at Georgia Tech. (Image: International Thwaites Dichek via Glacier Collaboration / Georgia Tech-Schmidt)

During an unprecedented scientific campaign on an Antarctic glacier notorious for contributions to sea level, researchers took first-ever images of the glacier’s foundations on the ocean floor. The area is key to Thwaites Glacier’s potential to become more dangerous, and in the coming months, the research team hopes to give the world a clearer picture of its condition.

The images, taken by a robotic underwater vehicle, were part of a broad set of data collected in a variety of experiments by an international team. The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC) announced the completion of this first-ever major research venture on the glacier coincident with the 200-year anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica in 1820.

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Already, Thwaites accounts for about 4 percent of global sea-level rise. Researchers have had concerns that a tipping point in the stability at its foundations could result in a run-away collapse of the glacier and boost sea levels by as much as 25 inches. By studying multiple aspects of Thwaites, the ITGC wants to understand more about the likelihood that a glacier the size of Florida may reach such instability in the coming decades.

Line of concern

The area of concern that the underwater vehicle visited is called the grounding line, and it is important to the stability of Thwaites Glacier’s footing. It is the line between where the glacier rests on the ocean bed and where it floats over water. The farther back the grounding line recedes, the faster the ice can flow into the sea, pushing up sea level. Britney Schmidt, an ITGC co-investigator from the Georgia Institute of Technology, said:

The underwater robot, Icefin, was engineered by Schmidt’s Georgia Tech lab. The Georgia Tech team was part of a greater collaboration between researchers from the U.S. and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), who lived and worked on Thwaites in December and January. A BAS hot water drill melted a hole 590 meters deep (1,935 feet) to access the ocean cavity for Icefin. Schmidt added:

Historic research venture

In the coming months and years, the ITGC team made up of researchers from multiple universities and research institutions in the U.S. and the UK will publish studies with thorough findings based on the unprecedented data collected during the field campaign.

The first-ever images have been taken of the grounding zone of Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. The grounding line just behind it is an integral factor in the glacier's stability or lack thereof. It is tied to the fate of global sea-levels. At top, the glacier, at bottom, the seafloor.
The first-ever images have been taken of the grounding zone of Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. The grounding line just behind it is an integral factor in the glacier’s stability or lack thereof. It is tied to the fate of global sea levels. At top, the glacier, at bottom, the seafloor. (Image: International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration via Georgia Tech-Schmidt lab)

The array of research the scientists carried out research included seismic and radar measurements and using hot water drills to make holes between 300 and 700 meters (985 and 2,300 feet) deep down to the ocean and glacier bed below Thwaites’ ice. Researchers also took cores of sediment from the seafloor and underparts of the glacier grounded on the bed to examine the quality of the foothold that it offers Thwaites. Keith Nicholls, an oceanographer from the British Antarctic Survey, said:

Nicholls is a co-principal investigator on the project that involved Schmidt along with David Holland of New York University. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation, the UK Natural Environment Research Council, the U.S. Antarctic Program, and the British Antarctic Survey.

Antarctica sea-level background

Over the past 30 years, the amount of ice flowing to the sea from Thwaites and its neighboring glaciers has nearly doubled. Schmidt said:

Provided by: Ben Brumfield, Georgia Institute of Technology [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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