Geology & Geophysics AGU News

The Threat at Thwaites

This Antarctic glacier is rapidly losing mass. An international team is digging into the ice to figure out just how bad it is.

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The best—or at least most entertaining—thing I learned from this issue is that glaciers tend to behave “like pancake batter on a frying pan.” Ted Scambos offers that description in this month’s cover story, “Diagnosing Thwaites.”

Scambos is the lead scientific coordinator for the U.S. side of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC). Launched in 2018, this large research initiative hosts eight teams studying the past, present, and future of Thwaites, one of Antarctica’s most unstable glaciers. The problem with Thwaites, and with the West Antarctic region generally, is that it’s pancake batter sliding around in too much oil—as it loses mass from both above and below, ocean water is creeping in underneath and reducing the friction between the ice and the bedrock, allowing it to slide freely over the water. The more it flows, the faster it may calve ice, and scientists have serious worries that this will create a runaway situation called marine ice sheet instability.

It will not surprise you to learn that a catastrophic collapse at Thwaites could have alarming effects on sea level rise worldwide. That’s why the ITGC teams are spending four austral summers drilling into the ice, collecting bedrock samples, and building model after model to help the experts get a grip on what is happening there.

Of course, there are challenges that come with studying unstable ice at the bottom of the world, and sometimes you must address them by blowing up things in Texas. In “Controlled Explosions Pave the Way for Thwaites Glacier Research,” read about one of the ITGC teams trying to study the bedrock underneath the ice. The researchers can “basically create X-ray images of the landscape” by detonating explosives near the surface of the glacier and mapping how the seismic waves propagate, says the lead scientist on the team. If you’d like to learn more about how bedrock affects glaciers generally, head to “What Lies Beneath Is Important for Ice Sheets” to meet some researchers gaining insight into glaciology and ice vulnerability by reconstructing the topography under Antarctica back 34 million years.

Elsewhere in the issue, we hope you’ll turn to “Understanding Our Environment Requires an Indigenous Worldview” to learn about ice—this time in Alaska—from a different perspective. Raychelle Daniel, of Yup’ik descent, describes the consequences of conducting science and creating science policy without the unique contributions of the indigenous people immersed in the environment. Daniel’s article was the excellent conclusion of a weeklong series of articles on diversity perspectives published at Eos.org. Find the entire series here.

See you all next month.

—Heather Goss (@heathermg), Editor in Chief

Citation: Goss, H. (2020), The threat at Thwaites, Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO140232. Published on 24 February 2020.
Text © 2020. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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