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6 January, 2022 - 10:01 By Tony Quested

UEA scientists guide mission to chart Antarctic sea-level rise

Scientists from the University of East Anglia are leading an historic hi-tech mission to the Antarctic that will see a fleet of underwater robots deployed to explore the impact of Thwaites Glacier on global sea-level rise.

The mission – on the 100th anniversary of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s death – forms part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration; a five-year, $50 million joint US and UK project to learn more about Thwaites Glacier, its past and what the future may hold.

Thwaites Glacier, covering 74,000 square miles – an area the size of Florida or Great Britain – is particularly susceptible to climate and ocean changes. 

Computer models show that over the next several decades the glacier may lose ice rapidly, as ice retreats. Already, ice draining from Thwaites into the Amundsen Sea accounts for about four percent of global sea-level rise. 
A runaway collapse of the glacier would contribute around an additional 65cm (25 inches) to sea-level rise over the coming centuries.

The 65-day voyage led by scientists from the University of East Anglia along with researchers and engineers from Sweden and the US, will investigate atmospheric and oceanic conditions close to Thwaites ice shelf, the floating part of Thwaites Glacier where it meets the sea. 

Boaty McBoatface, the state-of-the-art Autosub Long Range (ALR) vehicle operated by the National Oceanography Centre, will travel under the ice shelf along with Ran, a Hugin robot, from University of Gothenburg, while six ocean gliders patrol the entrances and exits to the ice shelf cavity. 

The fleet will explore largely uncharted territory to measure geometry and melting processes, the seafloor below, the ice thickness above and water properties in between.

Professor Karen Heywood, from UEA and UK lead on the ITGC TARSAN project, says: “This is a massively ambitious mission that we have been planning for several years. We will deploy two big underwater robots underneath the ice to collect detailed data from this crucial area of the glacier that will enable us to understand what will happen in the future.

“By measuring the ocean properties in sub-ice shelf cavities, we can understand how the ocean transports heat and what impact this may have on the glacier.

“I and my team back at UEA are going to be remotely piloting the six ocean gliders, smaller robots, once the scientists on board launch them into the water.” 

Alongside the robot teams, scientists from University of St Andrews will tag seals to acquire ocean temperature and saltiness data around the ice shelf for the next nine months over the Antarctic winter, and researchers working on the ITGC THOR project will collect sediment cores and survey the seabed. 

At the same time, researchers working on the partnering ARTEMIS project will measure chemical properties of the seawater, including minute quantities of iron that are the foundation of the Antarctic marine ecosystem.

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