Glacier collapse is focus of Antarctic study

Edinburgh researchers are part of a £20 million project to understand how quickly a massive Antarctic glacier could collapse.

Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica
Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica

They are involved in a joint UK-US programme to study Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, the breakup of which could significantly affect global sea levels.

The glacier drains an area roughly the size of Britain, accounting for four per cent of global sea-level rise – twice that since the mid-1990s.

Around 100 scientists will gather data needed to understand whether its collapse could begin in the next few decades or centuries.

International effort

The examination, involving the Natural Environment Research Council and the US National Science Foundation, is one of the most extensive of an Antarctic glacier ever undertaken.

It is the largest joint project involving the UK and US in Antarctica for more than 70 years.

Scientists from the UK and US will work with researchers from South Korea, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland, contributing to nine individual projects.

Glacier dynamics

Teams from Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences will be involved in two of the projects to help understand the glacier’s future contribution to global sea-level rise.

Dr Robert Bingham will survey the bedrock and sediment lying one mile below the ice as part of the GHOST project.

Dr Bingham and his team have recently carried out surveys of the neighbouring Pine Island Glacier. They have shown that knowing the shape of the bed is vital for modelling ice flow, and therefore understanding how quickly ice will feed sea level rise.

Our aim is to acquire critical information about what lies beneath the surface of this exceptionally remote glacier, Antarctica’s biggest potential contributor to global sea level rise over the next century.

Dr Robert Bingham

Reducing uncertainty

Dr Dan Goldberg and Dr Noel Gourmelen will be involved in the PROPHET project, which aims to reduce uncertainty in projections of the glacier’s behaviour.

Dr Gourmelen will survey the ice shelf’s size and shape, while Dr Goldberg will carry out computer modelling of the possible future impact of climate change on the glacier.

There is now a wealth of observations made over Thwaites from airborne and spaceborne missions including the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 mission, giving an unprecedentedly accurate and detailed picture of the changes the glacier is experiencing.

Dr Noel Gourmelen

The measurements from Dr Gourmelen, along with those from Dr Bingham and others, will help to improve Dr Goldberg's computer model, ensuring more accurate predictions.

The prospect of integrating all of these observations with numerical models to try and piece together the future of the glacier is very exciting indeed.

Dr Dan Goldberg

Related links

School of GeoSciences


Natural Environment Research Council

Image credit: National Science Foundation