‘How much, how fast?’ Alaska researchers ask of melting Antarctic glacier

A NASA photo shows the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. Two researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are part of a 5-year research program that will try to determine how fast the glacier is disappearing. (Image courtesy of NASA)

There are glaciers melting all over the world, adding to global sea level rise. Some contribute more than others, and a glacier that’s seen as one of the most critical is the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica.

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Now, two researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) are embarking on an international research project to study the melting taking place there. Martin Truffer, a physics professor at UAF is one of them.

“There’s many indications that any sort of potential large-scale sea level rise in the next decades and centuries will come from that area,” Truffer said. “So there’s a large international push to go and understand that better.”

The main thing the researchers will be trying to figure out is the pace at which the glacier is disappearing.

“The report that triggered this proposal call originally had a title that I think was quite catching.  It asked ‘how much, how fast?’” Truffer said. “And that’s really the question here.”

Truffer says that in the past few years scientists have come up with a model for the Thwaites Glacier’s collapse that’s faster than anything thought previously.

Truffer and his colleagues will try to establish if that model is correct. They hope their research will give coastal communities the information they need to plan for the future.

“When you start talking thousands of years, then maybe it’s not so important where I build my house, or where people put infrastructure today,” Truffer said. “But if you start talking decades, then you need to plan for that.”

The $25 million, five-year project is a joint undertaking between researchers in the United States and the United Kingdom.

In October, Truffer’s team will start sending their research equipment to Antarctica. He and fellow University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Erin Pettit will make their first trip for the project there in 2019.