How long before climate change claims the Thwaites Glacier?

The National visits the British Antarctic Survey, which plans to use AI to study data that could offer hope for the planet's future

Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey have warned that the collapse of the the Thwaites glacier could be imminent. AP
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This summer, deep in the crevasses of a glacier the size of Britain, Dr Alex Brisbourne will attempt to uncover information that could affect all humanity.

Hidden in the ice of the Thwaites Glacier – a vast Antarctic ice sheet named after American geologist Frederik T Thwaites – are clues that will show whether it is liable to suffer a catastrophic collapse, triggering a rapid slide into Antarctic waters that could lead to a four-metre rise in sea levels.

Global temperatures are now warming so rapidly and the polar ice is retreating so quickly that scientists at the British Antarctic Survey have warned the world could have already reached the tipping point.

In 1985, scientists from the organisation discovered the hole in the ozone layer, leading to a ban on CFC aerosols.

“Our only hope is listening to what we are seeing in the data and doing something about it,” Prof Jane Francis, director of the organisation, told The National.

Using artificial intelligence, drones and human endeavour, scientists are to set out this year to assess a mass of data that can offer predictions about the future of the planet.

Discovering what is happening to Antarctica’s ice and waters will be key.

The organisation launched its Polar Science for a Sustainable Planet strategy this week, which coincided with the news that temperatures in the waters around the UK had risen by 4°C.

It emphasised the urgency of the work to be undertaken by the organisation.

“What happens in the polar regions affects us all,” said Prof Francis. “People have to listen to the data.”

Global Antarctic

“What happens in Antarctica doesn’t stay in Antarctica,” said Prof Dominic Hodgson, leader of the organisation's climate change team.

The currents that circulate around the world are directly influenced by the Antarctic.

The continent hosts 90 per cent of the Earth's ice and a significant amount of marine creatures that absorb 20 per cent of global carbon dioxide.

Research suggests they will be key to the future of the climate.

“The ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland are like sleeping giants that we can see beginning to awaken,” Prof Francis said.

“The impact of this will be devastating for the rest of the planet. Tipping points and irreversible change are really difficult topics, but we are gradually sliding into them.”

Prof Dominic Hodgson of the British Antarctic Survey. Photo: British Antarctic Survey

Pace of change

“The change is happening at such a pace that we have to change our science,” said Prof Hodgson.

He is among dozens of scientists researching that the world’s climate was like thousands of years ago to find clues about how to tackle the future.

So far, the science goes back 800,000 years by using drills to bore 1km down and extract ice that has captured the world’s historical gases.

Using laboratories at the British organisation's Cambridge site – or at one of its five stations in the Antarctic – scientists slowly melt the ice to judge the amount of gases such as carbon dioxide were present at that time.

The blocks melt with a fizzing noise as the gas bubbles escape. The National handled a 400-year-old chunk at the site.

The data shows is the amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere is now double the previous highest level, about 320,000 years ago.

The agricultural and industrial revolutions caused emissions levels to surge from 1765, when the global carbon dioxide molecules per million molecules (PPM) was 280ppm.

By 2022, it soared to a record 417ppm.

“This is a new phase of planetary climate,” Prof Hodgson said. “It is coming much faster at us and in decades or less it will come right at us very quickly.”

The organisation is this year seeking to retrieve ice dating back 1.5 million years to see whether the past can help.

Thwaites threat

Advancing on a 120km front at about 2km a year, the Thwaites Glacier, also known as the Doomsday Glacier, has been the subject of a major investigation since 2020, when scientists found its movement led to warmer seawater getting underneath it for the first time.

It is now predicted that a catastrophic collapse could happen as soon as five years or within 500 years.

That highlights the need for Dr Brisbourne’s investigation into what lies beneath it.

“For the collapse to be within five years, the glacier bed would have to be extremely soft, extremely wet and there would be no friction essentially from the bedrock,” he told The National.

“We're pretty certain that isn't the case, but what we don't know are some of these tipping point processes.”

It is the area of Antarctica that causes scientists the greatest concern, because Thwaites forms the keystone for a whole basin of glaciers on the continent.

“If you lose Thwaites, you could lose that entire basin and that's three and a half metres above sea level,” he said.

“This is where major change is happening now.”

The first warnings were sounded by satellite imagery 25 years ago in a remote area that only a handful of people have visited.

Drone, data and AI

Dr Brisbourne will use a variety of instruments inserted into the ice to investigate.

Advances in drone technology mean unmanned aircraft can fly to remote areas and drop off equipment at base camps.

Drones are also helping with mapping and protecting the area's wildlife, including 600,000 emperor penguins.

A key asset to the investigation is the recently built 15,000-tonne Sir David Attenborough research ship, which is capable of breaking through ice that is one metre thick.

The vessel can carry up to 60 scientists and a host of autonomous equipment, including the torpedo-shaped Slocom that can take long-term measurements at a depth of 1,000 metres.

The Sailbuoy boat, the size of a small dingy, can be sailed from Britain using a mobile phone as its echo-sounder monitors fish, zooplankton and chlorophyll, the base of the Antarctic food web.

There is also the Boaty McBoatface – the popular poll name for the research ship – autonomous submarine, which can map out movement in deep waters.

Both human and machine investigations are producing a huge amount of data and “we are using AI to process it so much faster", Prof Francis said.

“We must seize this moment to ensure AI becomes a force for good to help tackle the climate crisis head-on.”

Hope for the future?

The sense of doom is difficult to lift.

“The rate and scale of the change is considerable,” said Prof Hodgson.

"That’s why our science is really focusing on what we need to do to protect planetary health, frankly, protect the survivability of our human infrastructure.

“Unfortunately we're seeing lots of events starting to align that says we are changing the state of the planet.”

The data is key, because it goes to politicians who decide what policies are needed. So was there any cause for optimism?

“President [Joe] Biden is investing hugely and meaningfully in transitioning the US economy,” Prof Hodgson said.

“It needs those bold visions and someone who accepts that the science has been unequivocal.”

Updated: June 23, 2023, 6:00 PM