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Doomsday mission: Climate scientists trek to crucial glacier

© SYSTEMJulien Bodart.
Julien Bodart.

A team of Scots is to join scientists in the Antarctic detailing the impact of climate change on one of the world’s most important indicators of global warming.

The Thwaites Glacier – known as the Doomsday Glacier and bigger than Britain – was recently found to be melting even faster than previously thought.

Scientists fear that if it were to collapse, destabilising other nearby glaciers, it could see ocean levels rise by several feet, bringing devastation to millions of people around the world.

Warm ocean water circulates under the ice, causing it to melt. Melting loosens the ice from the bedrock below, causing it to flow faster and eventually retreat into the deeper and thicker ice areas where it is likely to speed up still more.

Now a team from Edinburgh University are to join scientists on a mission to study the damage. Team member Julien Bodart, of Edinburgh University’s School of GeoSciences, said: “The West Antarctic Ice Sheet contains enough ice that, if melted completely, would raise global sea levels by more than 10 feet.

“Since the global glaciology/science community started observing changes to Antarctica with satellites, we have witnessed accelerating thinning of ice especially around the coastal parts of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet where Thwaites is situated.

“Knowing how quickly Thwaites Glacier might diminish provides crucial information to communities around the world on who will be impacted by a rise in global sea levels.”

Team leader, professor Robert Bingham, said: “What we fundamentally do not know is whether the thinning observed over the past 30 years at Thwaites Glacier will continue and, if it does, whether it will continue at the current rate or may occur even faster. To be able to predict this with any accuracy we need to visit the region and make measurements of the underside of the glacier”

Reports on the meltdown suggest that it has dislodged from its seabed sometime in the past 200 years and is being accelerated at a worrying rate.

Over less than six months its grounding retreated at 1.3 miles a year, twice the rate noted by previously satellite surveillance, from 2011 to 2019.

The team will travel the Thwaites Glacier over a distance of 250 miles on skidoos to survey the bedrock beneath it.

Bodart added: “To work out the friction holding back the ice, we are using ice-penetrating radars for detailed information on what lies beneath the ice, such as the shape of the bedrock and whether there is water at the ice-bed interface. Both these control how fast the glacier flows.”

Previous research by researchers from Birmingham University and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, suggest that we are near a “tipping point” where ocean warming could trigger catastrophic rises in sea levels from melting ice sheets.