Thwaites Interdisciplinary Margin Evolution (TIME)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Scott Polar Research Institute


The global scientific community considers the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to be the most significant risk for coastal environments and cities, given its potentially large contribution to future sea-level rise. The risk posed by the WAIS is exacerbated because it is in direct contact with the warming ocean and because its reverse bed slope makes the ice vulnerable to a prolonged unstable retreat.
Although scientists have been aware of the precarious setting of the WAIS since the early 1970s, it is only now becoming apparent that the flow of ice in several large drainage basins is undergoing dynamic change, which is consistent with - although not certain to be - the beginning of a sustained and potentially unstoppable disintegration. Two of the fundamental global challenges facing the scientific community today include understanding the controls on the stability of the WAIS, and enabling a more accurate prediction of sea-level rise through improved computer simulations of ice flow. In the TIME project, we directly address both challenges by:
a) using frontier technologies to observe rapidly deforming shear margins hypothesized to exert strong control on the future evolution of ice flow in the Thwaites Glacier drainage basin, and
b) using observational records to develop parameterisations for important processes which are yet to be implemented in the ice sheet models used to predict the Antarctic contribution to sea level rise.
TIME will test the key hypothesis that the future evolution of ice flow through the Thwaites Glacier drainage basin is governed by the dynamics of the shear margins that separate the fast flowing glacier from the slow-moving ice that surrounds it. To test the hypothesis the team will set up an ice observatory at two sites on the eastern shear margin of Thwaites Glacier. The team argues that weak topographic control makes this shear margin susceptible to outward migration and, possibly, sudden jumps in response to the drawdown of inland ice when the grounding line of Thwaites Glacier retreats. The ice observatory is designed to produce new and comprehensive constraints on important englacial properties, which include ice deformation rates, ice crystal fabric, ice viscosity, ice temperature, ice liquid-water content and basal melt rates. The ice observatory will also establish basal conditions, including thickness and porosity of any subglacial sediment layer and the deeper marine sediments.
Furthermore, the team will develop new knowledge with an unparalleled emphasis on the consequences of variations in these properties for ice flow, including a direct assessment of the spatial and temporal scales on which they vary. These knowledge will be obtained from interdisciplinary field-based geophysical platforms, including 3D active-source seismic surveys, 2D active-source seismic transects, networks of GPS and complementary passive broadband seismometers, and autonomous radar systems deployed with phased arrays to detect rapidly deforming internal layers and liquid water in the ice and at the bed.
Datasets will be incorporated into numerical models developed on different spatial scales. One will focus specifically on shear margin dynamics, the other on how shear margin dynamics can influence ice flow in the whole drainage basin. Upon completion, the project will have confirmed whether the eastern shear margin of Thwaites Glacier can migrate rapidly, as hypothesised, and if so what the impacts will be in terms of sea level rise in this century and beyond.

Planned Impact

The TIME project benefits any academic research programme aiming to understand the dynamic controls on the Thwaites Glacier Drainage Basin and, therefore, the wider stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. To date, the characterisation of the Thwaites margins has been largely ignored in numerical ice sheet models; this is despite the fact that the global scientific community considers the collapse of WAIS to be among the most significant risks for coastal environments and cities given the potential consequence for future sea-level rise. Our research therefore addresses a fundamental socio-economic question, and could ultimately influence government policy via contributions to future forecasts of sea-level rise in the coming decades. To facilitate the broadest reach into the wider community, we will continue our collective record of dissemination into the highest-profile open-access scientific literature.
Our programme of public engagement will raise awareness of the role of glaciers in the climate change debate, ensuring that environmental considerations remain on government agendas. This programme involves a continuing commitment to public dissemination, including a 'Polar Science Day' of outreach at each of our five annual science meetings (held successively in Santa Cruz, Cambridge, El Paso, Leeds and Oklahoma). It is the experience of USA partners in the TIME project that more than 1000 community members participate in such educational activities, and we expect to be able to replicate this in each regional event. We will also produce an exhibition based on discovery science in the TIME project, using the Polar Museum in Cambridge as a venue for public outreach. The museum is visited by 40,000 or more members of the public and >100 schools groups each year. Public engagement will also be facilitated by maintaining a project website, featuring "explained" science, field photos, tweets and blogs.
The education and outreach theme will revolve around the central question: Is the WAIS in a state of collapse? This highly relevant question offers rich possibilities for education and outreach for K-12 audiences in the USA and school groups from both primary and secondary education in the UK.


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