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Scientists drill into ‘doomsday glacier’ the size of Britain to see if it’s going to collapse

Rob Waugh
Contributor
It's the first time scientists have drilled through the ice (British Antarctic Survey)

Teams of scientists are drilling into a huge glacier – described as the “doomsday glacier” – to find out if it’s about to collapse.

Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is 74,000 square miles, the size of Great Britain, and is thought to be particularly susceptible to climate change. 

Even now, ice draining from Thwaites into the Amundsen Sea accounts for about 4% of global sea-level rise. 

Over the past 30 years, the amount of ice flowing out of Thwaites and its neighbouring glaciers has nearly doubled.

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A runaway collapse of the Thwaites glacier would lead to a global sea level rise of at least two feet.

Scientists have used hot water to drill between 300 and 700 metres through the ice to the ocean and sediment beneath.

It’s the first time scientists have drilled through Thwaites Glacier.

It's the first time scientists have drilled through the ice (BAS)

At the grounding zone site a series of instruments were fed through the borehole – including a small yellow under-ice robot, Icefin, which collected data on how the glacier interacts with the ocean and the underlying sediments.

Lead scientist for Icefin, Dr Britney Schmidt from Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, who’s still working in Antarctica, said: “We designed Icefin to be able to access the grounding zones of glaciers, places where observations have been nearly impossible, but where rapid change is taking place.

“To have the chance to do this at Thwaites Glacier, which is such a critical hinge point in west Antarctica, is a dream come true for me and my team. The data couldn’t be more exciting.”

Dr Keith Nicholls, an oceanographer from British Antarctic Survey and the UK lead on the MELT (melting at Thwaites grounding zone and its control on sea level) team, said: “We know that warmer ocean waters are eroding many of west Antarctica’s glaciers, but we’re particularly concerned about Thwaites.

“This new data will provide a new perspective of the processes taking place so we can predict future change with more certainty.”

UK science minister Chris Skidmore said: “This is an exciting achievement by our researchers. We are leading the fight against climate change and UK researchers are at the forefront of investigating the impact of rising temperatures in Antarctica.

“The Government is making significant investments toward their vital work such as the impact of glaciers melting on future sea-level rise.”