Boaty McBoatface is headed to Antarctica to study the “doomsday glacier”

Thwaites glacier is two miles thick and as big as Wisconsin. It's already contributing 4 percent to sea level rise.
May 1, 2018, 3:40pm

A coalition of U.S. and British researchers have sent the good ship Boaty McBoatface on its first major mission: study the so-called “doomsday glacier” in Antarctica that could flood coastlines around the world.

Two years ago, the British Natural Environment Research Council put up an online poll and let the internet decide what to name it’s newest state-of-the-art research boat. Social media users crashed their website with traffic, and ignored the buttoned-up British names the research council had suggested (“Endeavor”) and opted instead for Boaty McBoatface.

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The British government ignored democracy and christened the ship the R.S.S. Sir David Attenborough, and now the ship is being sent to conduct an unprecedented study of the Thwaites glacier, a two-mile thick block of ice the size of Wisconsin that is already driving about 4 percent of global sea level rise.

The trip, with a $25 million price tag, could change the way scientists model sea level rise. The ship’s yellow submarine (which the British government agreed to officially name Boaty McBoatface) will be the lead sub for a fleet of underwater robots that will study the base of the glacier.

Part of the reason the glacier has not been studied is it’s so remote. “It's not 'on the way anywhere,’ so to speak, and so it's not been the focus of a lot of research,” Sridhar Anandakrishnan, a Penn State geoscientist and one of the leaders of the Thwaites research mission told VICE News. “A couple dozen people at most have been on this glacier.”

Prior research into the Thwaites glacier led researchers to believe we had vastly underestimated the potential for sea levels to rise in this century. A 2016 study in Nature took hints from what happened in Antarctica after the last ice age and predicted that sea level rise could top a meter by the end of this century. That’s double what the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had predicted — and the UN’s predictions are largely considered the gold standard in climate modeling.

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Because the base of the glacier is so deep underwater it is hard to study. Its “grounding line,” the term for where ocean meets ice meets bedrock, is some 2,600 feet beneath the surface. The team of scientists heading down to Antarctica this year want to measure it, up close and personal.

The scientists will use radar to measure how much the glacier has retreated, and how quickly it is moving. They’ll also use seismic testing, detonating tiny explosives on the surface of the ice and measuring the reverberations as they bounce off the bedrock below. They’ll collect tiny samples of that bedrock, too, which might give clues as to what happened to the glacier during its retreat after the last ice age.

All of this, the researchers hope, will give clues as to what could happen should temperatures continue to rise this century.

Image courtesy of the National Environment Research Council

Anandakrishnan said that he expects that they’ll find the bedrock under the glacier to be variable: rough in some spots, smooth in others. They’ll crunch the numbers on whatever they find.

“All of that information will go into numerical models and allow the modelers to make a much more realistic projection of how Thwaites glacier will look in 100 years time under expected climate scenarios,” he said.

"There are coastal cities and coastal ecosystems that are threatened by sea level rise and the increased frequency of storm surges that would occur with sea level rise, Professor David Vaughan, director of science at the British Antarctic Survey, said, according to the U.K.’s Daily Mirror. "That is what Thwaites is about."

Cover image: RRS Sir David Attenborough, UK Natural Environment Research Council