International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration @GlacierThwaites
Exploring Antarctica to investigate the nightmare scenario of melting ice that could spell disaster for a warming planet
This is the first dispatch in a series from Jeff Goodell, who will be investigating the effect of climate change on Thwaites glacier.
I’m writing this aboard the R/V Nathanial Palmer, a 300-foot ocean research vessel that is, at this moment, tied up at a dock in Punta Arenas, Chile. On board the ship are me and writer Elizabeth Rush and 26 scientists and 31 crew members and support staff, as well as many millions of dollars worth of scientific equipment. We departed for Antarctica two nights ago, but we had to return to port because of a problem with the ship’s rudder. OUCH! Divers are in the water now — presumably it will get fixed shortly and we will depart for a week-long transit to the West Coast of Antarctica, where we will spend the next 6 weeks in one of the most remote regions of the most remote continent in the universe.
The mission of this scientific expedition is straightforward: to better understand the risk of catastrophic collapse of Thwaites glacier, one of the largest glaciers in West Antarctica. Thwaites glacier is perhaps the most important tipping point in the Earth’s climate system. Thwaites is the cork in the wine bottle for the entire West Antarctic ice sheet. If it collapses, it could dump enough ice into the ocean to cause seas to rise by 10 feet or more. That would doom Miami, Boston, New York City, London, Shanghai, Jakarta — and virtually every other coastal city in the world. As Thwaites goes, so goes human civilization as we know it.
The trip I’m about to take is the first expedition in a US$25 million, five-year joint research project between the National Science Foundation and the British Antarctic Survey. During this 5-year research project, scientists will poke and prod the glacier from every direction, map the ground beneath it, measure changes in ocean currents that are bringing warm water to the base of the glacier, and dig up mud near the front of the glacier to better understand how quickly it has retreated during past warm periods. As Robert Larter, a marine geophysicist with the British Antarctic Survey who is the chief scientist on the trip, told us during a science meeting aboard the ship last night, “The question we want to answer is, is West Antarctica on the verge of unstoppable collapse?”
But first, of course, we have to get to Antarctica. Right now, as we wait for the rudder to be fixed, everyone is sorting out their gear, meeting their cabin-mates (2 people to a cabin, in small bunk beds with railings that can be installed so you aren’t thrown out of bed during high seas). The ship has 5 decks which are connected through a maze of green steel doors and stairways. Because this is, in part, a USA government sponsored trip, this afternoon we all had to watch videos about environmental rules in Antarctica (which included tips on how to pick seed pods out of the Velcro on your winter jacket so as to not import any invasive species to the continent). We also practiced getting into the lifeboat and donning our bright orange immersion suits, which would, in theory, keep us warm for a few hours if we had to abandon ship in the icy waters of the Southern Ocean. We have learned that everything must be strapped down and have tested sea sickness medications for when the big seas hit as we cross Drake’s Passage, the notoriously treacherous open water between South America and Antarctic.
For the scientists aboard the ship, there is a lot of unpacking and prepping and strategizing happening right now. I’ve spent most of my career as a journalist around scientists, but on a trip like this, you really feel the urgency of their work. To get invited on this cruise, scientists had to submit lengthy proposals about what they hope to discover and why it is important. Selection was highly competitive. The people onboard are the All-Stars of the science world. And there is a lot of pressure to make the most of their time and not to screw anything up. Once we are at sea, work will go on 24 hours a day, every day.
“There is not a moment to waste on a trip like this,” Robert Larter told me while we were standing on the deck of the ship, watching cranes lift containers full of scientific equipment onto the deck. “This ship is very expensive to run” — Larter estimates the Palmer costs US$30 K a day to operate — “and this is your one shot to get to a place like Thwaites glacier. You want to take full advantage of that.”
dateline: PUQ / Puento Arenas, Chile, land port of departure, summer season South Pole, cruise ends March 22
"Civilization’s most important glacier has revealed another worrying surprise to scientists," Grist magazine eco-reporter Eric Holthaus told readers recently. "The Thwaites Glacier, the largest outflow channel of the vulnerable West Antarctic Ice Sheet, now has a gigantic subterranean hole."
Yes, that Thwaites glacier!
The NASA scientists who discovered the hole think that most of it formed in the past three years.
"As huge as that sounds, it’s just a tiny fraction of the Florida-sized glacier, but it sends an ominous signal that the glacier’s collapse is proceeding faster than expected," Holthaus, who commands a huge audience on his Twitter feed @ericholthaus, said.
The discovery comes as an important international effort to study the Thwaites glacier kicks off.
A friend of this blogger, the award-winning environmental writer Elizabeth Rush, is at this very moment on board an international research vessel and serving as a writer-in-residence for America's National Science Foundation. She has joined scientists from the USA and Great Britain aboard the R/V Nathaniel Palmer for a 50-day summer season scientific “cruise” to the Thwaites Glacier in one of the most remote regions in the world. The cruise docks back in Chile in March 22.
The remote location makes conducting research on the glacier both difficult and of vital importance, according to the foundation. To date, only 28 people in the world have ever stood atop the Thwaites glacier. As a member of the International Thwaites Collaboration, Rush will accompany three research teams as they investigate how quickly Thwaites has retreated in the past and how quickly it is retreating now.
As the research vessel left port and headed south to Antarctica, Rush sent out a tweet to one and all on her Twitter feed at @ElizabethARush saying: "Blast off!!!! We headed out of port from Puerto Arenas, Chile today surrounded by something like 50 Sei whales, their spouts sending sweet explosions of mist sky-ward. I can think of no better send off."
Later inside her cozy cabin, she tweeted: "Hanging above my desk on the boat is an awesome map of the R/V Nathaniel Palmer’s sea missions between 1992 and 2012."
It's 2019 and Rush is now at sea as you read this blog, and the Brown University professor is plannng to write a book about the Thwaites expedition and her adventures on the ship.
Dubbed the “Doomsday Glacier” by the news media, the Thwaites’ deterioration destabilizes the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is one of the largest potential contributors to sea level rise. The very rate at which Thwaites is melting will play a large role in determining the future of coastal communities around the world.
Rush, the author of the essay collection "Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore," is getting an ''up close and personal'' view of the glacier this month and next.
Most likely, she is also taking notes for what will become her next book, still untitled. of a new literary genre called ''creative nonfiction."
Her writing essays have appeared previously in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the New Republic, among other publications.
I'll give up-and-coming doomsday prophet Eric Holthaus the last word.
"The melting of the Thwaites could lead to as much as 10 feet of sea level rise over the next century or so," he told Grist readers in January. ''If we’re unlucky, much of that could happen the lifetimes of people alive today, flooding every coastal city on Earth and potentially grinding civilization to a halt."
Hopefully, Elizabeth Rush will come back from the depths of Antarctica with a more hopeful message in her new book, slated for publication in 2022.
Rush plans to produce a creative nonfiction book that explores ice loss in Antarctica and its impact on those who devote their lives to better understanding this phenomenon. She will immerse herself in the Thwaites Glacier fieldwork this February and March.
She will then later produce a collection of essays that bear witness to the changes physically transforming Antarctica and relay how those changes impact the polar scientists at the forefront of this research.
Additionally, upon returning from Antarctica, she will design and teach a new Advanced Creative Nonfiction Writing Workshop based on her Antarctic experience to help students develop the skills necessary to communicate science to a broader public.
Aboard the researtch vessel as a writer-in-residence, Rush will have the opportunity to observe and interview scientists and better understand the field work of this major research effort and communicate its story to the public.
Her goal is to document not just the physical transformations reshaping the Thwaites Glacier, but also the emotional, physical, spiritual and personal impact on those who are endeavoring to better understand these changes.
- Captain on Nathanial B Palmer, in Punta Arenas, Chile: “Drop all lines.” Antarctica here we come!pic.twitter.com/EO2xDSrrNU
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