Under the Antarctic Ice

The Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica is changing rapidly.  If there is any doubt in your mind, NASA has a nice before and after pair of images, from 2001 and 2019 [3].  These images look like winter versus spring on a frozen pond.  But they are the same time of the year (summer), less than 20 years apart.  The glacier is breaking up over the water, and this is happening fast.

These changes could mean that the glacier will flow even more rapidly to the sea, moving more ice from the interior into the sea, where it will melt.  This is a big deal, if that happens.  So there is a major research campaign to measure the bejesus out of Thwaites.

One of the areas of interest is what is happening at the grounding line, where the glacier touches bedrock.  This is a major brake on the ice, halting or slowing the flow out onto the water.  There is evidence that the ocean water offshore is warming, and if that warmer water reaches the grounding line it could lubricate or otherwise change things, releasing the ice to rush on into the (warm) ocean.  Boom!

(The BBC tags this “the Doomsday Glacier” [4], which I think is a bit over the top.  But it’s certainly important.)

In addition to visiting, sensing, and drilling into the ice [4], the research mission included the first robot submarine visit to the actual grounding line [1]. <<link>>  This was a pretty heroic mission, drilling through 590 meters of ice, and remote operating the sub for 15 km round trips.  Wow!


The mission captured the first images of the important grounding line.  (The full results will be published soon I’m sure.)

This same team is contributing to the development of missions to explore under the ice on Europa (should we last that long.)

  1. Michelle Babcock, First look under Thwaites Glacier and Kamb Ice Stream, in Life Under the Ice – Blog, January 28, 2020. https://schmidt.eas.gatech.edu/2019-field/firstlookunderthwaitesglacier/
  2. Ben Brumfield, Robotic Submarine Snaps First-Ever Images at Foundation of Notorious Antarctic Glacier, in Georgia Tech News, January 29, 2020. https://cos.gatech.edu/news/robotic-submarine-snaps-first-ever-images-foundation-notorious-antarctic-glacier
  3. Kathryn Hansen, Thwaites Glacier Transformed, in NASA Earth Observatory, February 6, 2020. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146247/thwaites-glacier-transformed
  4. Justin Rowlatt, Antarctica melting: Climate change and the journey to the ‘doomsday glacier’, in BBC News – Science & Environment, January 28, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-51097309


Robot Wednesday

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