Joint UK-U.S. Antarctic programme to study future sea level rise

A new UK-U.S. Antarctic research programme to improve the prediction of future sea-level rise is launched this week (Monday 30 April 2018) at British Antarctic Survey (BAS), Cambridge.

The £20 million (approx. $25 million) 5-year research collaboration, funded jointly by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), brings together over 100 polar scientists from leading UK and U.S. research organisations.

The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC) is the largest Antarctic research project undertaken by the two nations since the 1940s. Their mission is to deploy teams of researchers, using a suite of technologies to investigate changes on the ice and in the ocean. Their goal is to investigate the implications of a major glacier collapse on future sea level rise.

Scientists know already that Thwaites Glacier, which is twice the size of the UK, accounts for around 4% of global sea level rise. This contribution has doubled since the 1990s. The big unknowns are whether the glacier is likely to collapse in response to environmental change; when this might happen; how big a collapse could be, and the potential impact on sea level rise. The two nations recognise the importance and urgency in tackling these questions.

Director of BAS, Professor Dame Jane Francis says,

“Both the UK and U.S. have considerable expertise in the fields of glaciology and oceanography. We have spent decades working individually and collaboratively to understand Antarctica’s changing environment and the impact this will have on our planet. Recent advances in satellite technologies, combined with state-of-the art technologies such as hot-water drilling through ice shelves and robotic underwater vehicles equipped with sensors, put our countries in a strong position to combine our scientific, technical and operational expertise for the benefit of society. It’s a tremendously exciting time for science.”

The logistics of mounting a scientific campaign in one of the most remote places in Antarctica is a huge operational challenge. The nearest permanently occupied research station to the Thwaites Glacier is more than 1600km away. Both countries will co-ordinate their aircraft operations to transport glaciologists to their study sites on the ice, and deploy their ice-strengthened ships so that oceanographers and geophysicists can approach the glacier from the sea.

Dr. Kelly K. Falkner, Head of the U.S. Antarctic Program, says,

“The U.S. Antarctic Program has decades of experience in supporting large-scale international research initiatives–from building the world’s largest neutrino detector at the South Pole to supporting ice-core and sediment drilling projects that provided glimpses into the thawing and freezing of Antarctica over timescales of millions of years. I am fully confident that we will rise to the challenge of supporting these projects just as well.”

Professor David Vaughan is Director of Science at British Antarctic Survey and the lead scientific coordinator for the UK. He says,

“Whilst Antarctica seems far away, what is happening there is already affecting sea-levels around the world. UK and U.S. scientists have a track record of working well together on the ice, and together we have a unique opportunity to change our understanding of Antarctica. We believe this programme will generate the information we need to help protect coastal cities, ecosystems and vulnerable communities around the world.”

Dr Ted Scambos, of the National Snow and Ice Data Center is the Lead U.S. scientific coordinator. He says,

“For more than a decade, satellites have identified this area as a region of massive ice loss and rapid change. But there are still many aspects of the ice and ocean that cannot be determined from space. We need to go there, with a robust scientific plan of activity, and learn more about how this area is changing in detail, so we can reduce the uncertainty of what might happen in the future.”

The research campaign begins in October 2018 and continues to 2023. The funding is for eight research projects and a for a co-ordination grant.


Further information

The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC) projects are:

GHOST – Geophysical Habitat of Subglacial Thwaites.

Sridhar Anandakrishnan, Penn State University, and Andy Smith, British Antarctic Survey will use seismic and radar methods on the ice to investigate and quantify the sediment, hydrology, and bedrock underlying the glacier.

MELT – Melting at Thwaites Grounding Zone and Its Control on Sea Level

Keith Nicholls, British Antarctic Survey, and David Holland, New York University will measure the melting at the ice-ocean interface of the glacier, to understand its processes and potential for triggering increased sea-level rise.

TARSAN – Thwaites-Amundsen Regional Survey and Network

Karen Heywood, University of East Anglia, and Erin Pettit, University of Alaska Fairbanks will measure ocean circulation and thinning beneath the floating part of the glacier using state-of-the-art technology such as AUVs and automated land-ice stations, to investigate how the ocean and atmosphere are affecting the glacier.

GHC – Geological History Constraints on Grounding Line Retreat in the Thwaites Glacier system. Joanne Johnson, British Antarctic Survey, and Brent Goehring, Tulane University will sample bedrock beneath the ice sheet to identify if and when the glacier retreated in the past, how it recovered, and how it is currently responding to environmental conditions.

TIME – Thwaites Interdisciplinary Margin Evolution

Slawek Tulaczyk, Univ. California Santa Cruz, and Poul Christoffersen, Scott Polar Research Institute will use a variety of techniques such as radar and seismic analysis to understand the margins of the glacier to investigate what controls its width and speed.

THOR – Thwaites Glacier Offshore Research

Julia Wellner, University of Houston, and Robert Larter, British Antarctic Survey will investigate sediments deposited in the seas near the glacier to reconstruct past changes in environmental conditions and the glacier’s response to these, thereby adding context to our projections of future change.

DOMINOS – Disintegration of Marine Ice Sheets Using Novel Optimised Simulations

Doug Benn, University of St. Andrews, and Jeremy Bassis, University of Michigan (the DOMINOS team) will use computer modelling to examine calving and associated processes that could causes the rapid retreat and collapse of the glacier.

PROPHET – Processes, Drivers, Predictions: Modelling the History and Evolution of Thwaites Glacier

Mathieu Morlighem, Univ. California Irvine, and Hilmar Gudmundsson, Univ. of Northumbria aim to combine existing computer simulations of ice and ocean near the Glacier to improve models to reduce the uncertainty in the projection of the glacier’s behaviour and subsequent contribution to sea-level rise in the future.

SCO – Thwaites Science Coordination Office

David Vaughan, British Antarctic Survey, and Ted Scambos, University of Colorado will work to support the eight ITGC projects to enable and integrated, efficient and effective programme that fosters wider scientific collaboration, and delivers crucial science outcomes to key stakeholders.

Background notes

About the partners

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is the UK’s main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world’s most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. Find out more at

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). The U.S. Congress in 1950 established the Foundation “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes.” NSF is vital because it supports basic research to create knowledge that transforms the future. With an annual budget of $7.8 billion (fiscal year 2018), NSF funds discovery, learning, innovation and research infrastructure to boost U.S. leadership in all aspects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research and education. In contrast, other federal agencies support research focused on specific missions, such as health, energy or defense.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS), an institute of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), delivers and enables world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions. Its skilled science and support staff based in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic, work together to deliver research that uses the Polar Regions to advance our understanding of Earth as a sustainable planet. Through its extensive logistic capability and know how BAS facilitates access for the British and international science community to the UK polar research operation. Numerous national and international collaborations, combined with an excellent infrastructure help sustain a world leading position for the UK in Antarctic affairs.

The U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) is a NASA-, NSF-, and NOAA-funded data and research centre focused on the cryosphere – the frozen regions of the Earth. The centre manages remote sensing and field data of polar and mountain regions as the NASA Snow and Ice Distributed Active Archive Center (NSIDC DAAC), and supports a research team of 26 scientists active in all areas of polar and glacier research, including sea ice, glaciers, permafrost, and indigenous knowledge of polar-dwelling cultures. NSIDC is a valued part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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