A joint research project between scientists from the United States and United Kingdom will be one of the most detailed and extensive examinations of a massive Antarctic glacier ever undertaken.
The collapse of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica could significantly affect global sea levels. It already drains an area roughly the size of Britain or Florida, accounting for around 4 percent of global sea-level rise — an amount that has doubled since the mid-1990s.
The U.K. Natural Environment Research Council and the U.S. National Science Foundation will deploy scientists to gather the data needed to understand whether the glacier’s collapse could begin in the next few decades or centuries.
Dr. Rebecca Totten Minzoni, an assistant professor of geological sciences at The University of Alabama, has a role to play as a marine geologist and paleontologist in the roughly $25 million research collaboration. She will use her expertise in finding clues to the past behavior of Thwaites Glacier through what is left behind in the offshore sediment to inform models for how the glacier could behave in the future.
The project will deploy the most up-to-date instruments and techniques available, from drills that can make access holes 1,500 meters into the ice with jets of hot water to autonomous submarines.
Totten Minzoni will be aboard a research vessel where her part of the international team will extract cores of sediment from the sea floor to reveal the conditions around the ice sheet for the past 12,000 years.
“It’s just like stepping back in time because each layer tells you about a different time period and the glacial and oceanographic conditions,” she said.
Combined with dating of the sediment cores, Totten Minzoni’s findings will help researchers understand the rates of past glacier retreat, especially in the presence warm water, which can be used to understand how Thwaites Glacier could behave in similar waters today and in the future.
“The whole focus of this large project is have a more accurate model for what the contribution of Antarctica to sea level rise is going to be,” she said.