NSFPLR-NERC: Ground Geophysics Survey of Thwaites Glacier
This project contributes to the joint initiative launched by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.K. Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to substantially improve decadal and longer-term projections of ice loss and sea-level rise originating from Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. Global costs of rapid sea-level rise to infrastructure (e.g., houses, roads, farms, ports) are likely to be large. A possible source of water for sea-level rise is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and Thwaites Glacier in particular. Ice sheets and glaciers contain vast quantities of water (in the form of ice) that is continually shed to the ocean, and continually replenished by snowfall (from water that evaporates from the oceans). If the amount of ice that Thwaites Glacier loses to the ocean over the next decades is much greater than the amount it receives as snowfall, then sea level in all the world's oceans would rise, possibly as much as a meter (approximately 3 feet). In order to estimate how likely such a catastrophic scenario would be, we need to better understand the surface over which Thwaites Glacier slides. If we can better characterize that layer ("is to smooth? Is it rough? Is it soft? Is it hard?"), then computer models of Thwaites would be much improved and we can make better projections of the amount of ice that Thwaites Glacier would shed to the ocean.
The objectives of the project are to learn whether basal conditions allow for rapid retreat of the Thwaites Glacier grounding line or whether retreat may re-stabilize near its current grounding line. These objectives will be achieved by using dedicated ice-flow modeling to guide targeted field surveys and experiments over two seasons, and to measure the most important unknown quantities and incorporate them into the models. Numerical models will be used to generate hypotheses for basal conditions that are testable through geophysical surveys and to project future behavior of Thwaites Glacier after assimilating the resulting data. The geophysical methods include seismic, radar, gravity, and electrical surveys that together will allow for a fuller characterization of the bed. We will conduct field surveys in areas representative of different parts of the glacier, including across the margins, near the grounding line, and along the central axis of the glacier into its catchment.