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Science & Technology

Why The U.S. And Britain Are Teaming Up To Study A Massive Glacier In Antarctica


Scientists today announced a major new research collaboration in Antarctica. For the next five years, researchers from the U.S. and Britain will study a massive glacier in the western part of the continent. As NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports, the fate of this particular glacier could have major consequences for sea levels everywhere.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: If you ever find yourself in western Antarctica, you might come across the Thwaites Glacier. It's a massive ice up to two miles thick the size of Pennsylvania. Sridhar Anandakrishnan is a professor of geosciences at Penn State University. He's been there three times and says it's quite far from the U.S. and British research stations.

SRIDHAR ANANDAKRISHNAN: And once you're out there, in a sense, it's remote psychologically, you know? You're very, very far away from everybody else, even in Antarctica, which is, of course, very, very far away from everybody else in the world.

WAMSLEY: But it's worth the trip.

ANANDAKRISHNAN: It is like no place you've been - wide open spaces, horizons that go on forever, surface that is just ice and snow.

WAMSLEY: But what makes the Thwaites Glacier so important isn't just that it's remote and big but because it can dump a huge amount of water into the oceans if it melts.

ANANDAKRISHNAN: It is the one that is most likely to contribute an enormous amount to sea level rise over the next 100 years.

WAMSLEY: Worst case scenario, it could raise global sea levels by 2 to 3 feet. That's why today the National Science Foundation here in the U.S. and its counterpart in the U.K. are putting $25 million into studying the glacier. The collaboration involves about 100 scientists around the world, including Anandakrishnan. His team is trying to understand what's under all that ice, which will give us more information about the pace at which it could melt. His research will involve setting off small explosive charges on the glacier's surface.

ANANDAKRISHNAN: And the sound waves from that travel down through the ice, hit the bottom of the ice and then reflect off. And we can listen for that echo using devices called geophones.

WAMSLEY: All this research won't tell scientists exactly what will happen to the glacier over the next century, but it should remove some of the guesswork around sea level rise.

ANANDAKRISHNAN: I know that's not what people want to hear, but that's really what policymakers want. When they're building seawalls and protections and dikes and levees...

WAMSLEY: They need to know just how high to build them. Laurel Wamsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.