Antarctica's Thwaites glacier at mercy of sea warmth increase
Antarctic glaciers may be more sensitive to changes in sea temperature than was thought, new research shows.
The British Antarctic Survey and the US Antarctic programme put sensors and an underwater robot beneath the vast Thwaites glacier to study melting.
The size of Britain, Thwaites is one of the world's fastest changing glaciers.
Its susceptibility to climate change is a major concern to scientists because if it melted completely, it would raise global sea levels by half a metre.
The new research suggests that even low amounts of melting can potentially push a glacier further along the path toward eventual disappearance.
The joint survey at Thwaites is part of one of the largest investigations ever undertaken anywhere on the White Continent.
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Since the late 1990s, the glacier has seen a 14km retreat of its "grounding line" - that's the point where the ice flowing off the land and along the seabed floats up to form a huge platform.
In some places that grounding line is retreating now by over a kilometre a year, and because of the landward-sloping shape of the seabed, this process will likely accelerate.During the new research, British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists dropped sensors through boreholes in the ice to the water below.
The lessons learned at Thwaites almost certainly apply to all the other glaciers in the region that are also in retreat, Dr Davis added.
One of the contributing authors on the Icefin paper is Prof David Vaughan, the former director of science at BAS, whose death was announced by the polar agency last week.
Over 35-plus years, Prof Vaughan had built a formidable reputation as one of the world's leading glaciologists.
He championed the UK-US Thwaites project and was its co-lead until stepping back because of illness.
His journey to see the research described in Wednesday's two papers was his final expedition south.
Prof Helen Fricker, from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, is in Antarctica currently. She said: "David was a brilliant, thoughtful and engaging scientist who was a role model for so many. He was a leader in the field, making important geophysical insights about the Antarctic ice sheet and how it is changing.
"He led with dignity, grace, humour and compassion, and was actively supportive of young scientists, especially minorities. Antarctic science has lost a true hero and he will be deeply missed."
cover photo: Ars Tecnhica