How fast are Antarctic glaciers contributing to sea level rise? The largest research initiative in 70 years aims to find out.

Miami. Boston. New York. Norfolk, Virginia.

These are just a few of the many American coastal cities where flooding has become a topic as hot as the underlying cause of the crisis: global warming.

WATCH: Miles investigates the effects of sea level rise on cities like Boston.

These cities are trying to plan for the rise in global sea levels due to climate change, but there are no definitive projections of exactly how much water to expect. Recent predictions range from increases of less than a foot to over six feet by the end of the century.

Luckily, a new scientific collaboration–of a breadth and depth rarely seen in climate science–has just been announced that could end up providing much better estimates of global sea level rise.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC).

An unprecedented partnership for Antarctic exploration

Announced today at the headquarters of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, UK, the ITGC is a massive international collaboration. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the UK Natural Environment Resource Council (NERC) have partnered and put up a whopping $25 million to fund eight massive, five-year-long scientific studies of the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica.

Another $25 million or more is expected to be provided for the difficult logistical challenge of getting onto and off of the precarious Thwaites Glacier, where there is no permanent base.

[Full disclosure: Miles O’Brien Productions will receive funding from this team to embed in the field as they do their work over the years–it’s a front row seat to document this important, historic mission. We are excited to be in a privileged position to share the adventure with you every step of the way. So stay tuned!]

This endeavor is the largest joint venture in Antarctica by the two countries since the late 1940s. The last time they came together like this, more than 70 years ago, the UK and US were still mapping the icy continent.

Antarctic influence on global sea levels

In the context of a warming world, melting glaciers are considered to be the largest contributors to sea level rise. If all of Earth’s ice melted, sea levels would rise by over 200 feet.

That’s not likely to happen anytime soon, but still the fact remains: almost 90% of the world’s ice is in Antarctica, which also happens to be the continent we understand the least.

And in this land of enigmas, one particular spot has piqued the interest of the scientific world. No, it’s not the South Pole or the well-known Larsen ice shelf–it’s the Thwaites Glacier.

Thwaites Glacier and surrounding area, red box. Credit: | Miles O'Brien Productions
Thwaites Glacier and surrounding area, red box. Credit:

Why focus on the Thwaites Glacier?

“Thwaites is where the rubber hits the road, or not,” said New York University mathematician Dr. David Holland.

Holland and his UK colleague oceanographer Dr. Keith Nicholls are one of the eight science projects funded as part of ITGC. Named MELT, the experiment will involve drilling down to this ocean-ice interface and exploring it with state-of-the-art tools.

David Holland in Greenland. Credit: New York University. | Miles O'Brien Productions
David Holland in Greenland. Credit: New York University.

Holland and Nicholls aim to understand how a warming ocean creeping in under the glacier is affecting its melting in this particularly precarious expanse of ice.

In 2013, producer Kate Tobin and Miles O’Brien joined Holland and his team in Greenland to see how they do their work. Check out our story for the National Science Foundation’s Science Nation series.

We also featured Holland’s Greenland research in PBS NOVA’s Megastorm Aftermath.

The Thwaites Glacier might not look like much, taking up just north of 1% of all of Antarctica’s area, but it is a major player in moving ice from West Antarctica out into the ocean. The rate it’s shedding ice has doubled since the 1990s, and there are two key factors that could augur an impending collapse.

A destabilizing current shift

The first is that the Antarctic Circumpolar Current–the warm Southern Ocean equivalent of the Gulf Stream–has shifted recently and is now brushing up against Thwaites.

“It’s cold around Antarctica, except it’s warm right here, which is really weird,” said Holland.

A model of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, in blue. Credit: University of Miami. | Miles O'Brien Productions
A model of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, in blue. Credit: University of Miami.

Warm by Antarctic standards, that is: just a smidge above freezing. Holland isn’t exactly packing his swimwear, but this warming, even if slight, is crucial.

“Even a change of one degree at the freezing point is a game-changer,” Holland said. The warmer current is melting the seafloor-anchored glacier, reaching a warm tendril underneath the ice and thinning Thwaites from below.

Which brings us to the second key factor, the glacier’s delicate balancing act.

A glacier perching on a pea

The Thwaites Glacier has been pushed back to its last bump on the seafloor. “It’s stabilized there,” said Holland, “but it looks like it’s coming off that bump and then it’s all downhill to the South Pole.”

That means that the warmer water could easily seep deeper and further underneath the glacier, thinning it and drastically destabilizing the ice above in a vicious feedback loop.

This ice hasn’t been floating on the ocean already like Larsen and the other famous ice shelves that calve icebergs, so any ice Thwaites melts that was originally above sea level will quickly add to sea level rise.

Diagram of destabilized Thwaites Glacier. Credit: NERC, Ben Gilliland. | Miles O'Brien Productions
Diagram of destabilized Thwaites Glacier. Credit: NERC, Ben Gilliland.

This whole situation is called Marine Ice Sheet Instability, and it could lead to the catastrophic and quick collapse of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If that were to happen, sea level would rise by almost ten feet.

Natural variation or climate change?

All of these dramatic changes were noted in the Thwaites glacier only recently, and Holland concedes that it is unclear whether the Antarctic Circumpolar Current shifted due to a natural variation or because of human-caused climate change.

However, natural or not, the fact still remains: Thwaites Glacier is thinning and retreating, rapidly. We just don’t know enough about these types of ice-ocean interactions to make solid predictions of what is to come. But, no matter the cause, this degradation will have global effects if it continues unabated.

A focus on fragile glaciers like Thwaites is crucial to our understanding of the future of this planet’s melting ice.

“Scientists just don’t know how likely or unlikely it is that these glaciers are unstable and can rapidly discharge their ice,” said Dr. Waleed Abdalati, Director of University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, who is not involved in the ITGC partnership. “The answers are locked up in how the ocean and ice interact with one another.”

WATCH: How does ice move from Antarctica into the ocean? Miles investigates.

The importance of international collaboration

Besides the Holland-Nicholls MELT project, there are seven other US-UK science projects funded by the ITGC program. Coordinating over years of fieldwork, the teams will collect bedrock core samples, launch autonomous underwater vehicles under the ice, scan the area with radar, and much more.

This massive international endeavor highlights the best of the science method. The name of the game in modern science is teamwork, not individual discoveries by mad scientists in secretive labs.

The ITGC is “kind of a collective eureka,” said Holland. “There’s a bunch of things that have to happen to have it all come together. It all exceeds a human career lifetime.”

Looking forward to Antarctica

The first ITGC field season starts at the end of this year, and Holland is already looking forward to going back to Antarctica.

“It’s really interesting to be exploring something that’s never been seen before,” said Holland. “Nobody’s seen what’s underneath Thwaites Glacier–who knows what we’ll find!”

Beyond the science, Holland can’t wait to get back to the “serenity and beauty” of one of the most striking and mysterious places on Earth.

And don’t worry–you’ll be along for the ride. We at Miles O’Brien Productions are proud to be part of the outreach team for this groundbreaking research initiative.

In the coming months and years, we will be following the Holland-Nicholls project specifically and all the ITGC projects in general. We’ll even accompany these rockstar scientists to Antarctica and report from there.

Marine biology vessel RRS James Clark Ross in Antarctica. Credit: British Antarctic Survey. | Miles O'Brien Productions
Marine biology vessel RRS James Clark Ross in Antarctica. Credit: British Antarctic Survey.

We hope you’ll follow along! What do you want to know about the project or Thwaites? Let us know in the comments.

Banner image credit: Jeremy Harbeck, edited.

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