Mission to Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica Could Shed Light on How Far Sea Levels Will Rise

A team of scientists is traveling to visit Antarctica's "doomsday glacier" to figure out how much the water levels could rise after global warming has been withering away the continent's ice.

A team of 32 scientists joined the American research vessel and left January 6 to begin their two-month trip to visit the melting Thwaites glacier located on the western side of the continent.

Scientists are concerned about this particular glacier given its massive size and how remote it is, making it challenging for scientists to study.

The glacier is the size of Florida and is currently adding roughly 50 billion tons of ice into the sea every year. It's responsible for about 4 percent of the global sea rise, said University of Colorado ice scientist Ted Scambos last month at the McMurdo land station.

"Thwaites is the main reason I would say that we have so large an uncertainty in the projections of future sea level rise," said Anna Wahlin, an oceanographer from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

"It is configured in a way so that it's potentially unstable. And that is why we are worried about this," she said from the Research Vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer on Wednesday.

The team heading to the glacier said they plan to research the cracks in the ice and how it's structured. They also will measure the water temperature, the ice thickness and the seafloor.

Trip To Thwaites Glacier
This 2020 photo provided by the British Antarctic Survey shows the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica. Starting January 6, 2021, a team of scientists are sailing to the massive but melting Thwaites glacier, “the place in the world that’s the hardest to get to,” so they can better figure out how much and how fast seas will rise because of global warming eating away at Antarctica’s ice. David Vaughan/British Antarctic Survey/AP Photo

Thwaites "looks different from other ice shelves," Wahlin said. "It almost looks like a jumble of icebergs that have been pressed together. So it's increasingly clear that this is not a solid piece of ice like the other ice shelves are, nice smooth solid ice. This was much more jagged and scarred."

The Florida-sized glacier has gotten the nickname the "doomsday glacier" because of how much ice it has and how much seas could rise if it all melts—more than two feet (65 centimeters) over hundreds of years.

Oregon State University ice scientist Erin Pettit said Thwaites appears to be collapsing in three ways:

— Melting from below by ocean water.

— The land part of the glacier "is losing its grip" to the place it attaches to the seabed, so a large chunk can come off into the ocean and later melt.

— The glacier's ice shelf is breaking into hundreds of fractures like a damaged car windshield. This is what Pettit said she fears will be the most troublesome with six-mile (10-kilometer) long cracks forming in just a year.

No one has stepped foot before on the key ice-water interface at Thwaites before. In 2019, Wahlin was on a team that explored the area from a ship using a robotic ship but never went ashore.

Wahlin's team will use two robot ships—her own large one called Ran which she used in 2019 and the more agile Boaty McBoatface, the crowdsource named drone that could go further under the area of Thwaites that protrudes over the ocean—to get under Thwaites.

Because of its importance, the United States and the United Kingdom are in the midst of a joint $50 million mission to study Thwaites, the widest glacier in the world by land and sea. Not near any of the continent's research stations, Thwaites is on Antarctica's western half, east of the jutting Antarctic Peninsula, which used to be the area scientists worried most about.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Crack in ice
A team of 32 scientists joined the American research vessel and left on January 6, 2022, to begin their two-month trip to visit the melting Thwaites glacier located on the western side of the continent. Above, a photo shows parts of a glacier in the Kenai mountains near Primrose, Alaska, in September 2019. Ice quakes and frost quakes occur due to quick changes in stress. Joe Raedle/Getty