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Journey to Antarctica: Face-to-Face With the Doomsday Glacier

“For me, it’s hard to envisage something so big, so permanent, so vast, to be as fragile as it is,” scientist says in regards to first contact with Thwaites glacier

photo credit: James Kirkham

James Kirkham

This is the ninth dispatch in a series from Jeff Goodell, who will be investigating the effect of climate change on Thwaites glacier.

At about 5 a.m. last Tuesday morning, at latitude 74 degrees 57.4 S and longitude 106 12.8 W on the remote coast of West Antarctica, Thwaites glacier loomed up out of the fog and revealed itself to us. Peter Sheehan, a witty and hard-working 27-year-old researcher from the U.K.’s University of East Anglia, was one of the first scientists aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer to lay eyes on it. He had just climbed up five flights of stairs from the lab to the ship’s bridge, where he takes sea ice assessments every hour throughout the night. And there it was: a wall of ice on the starboard side of the ship, looming in the early morning light.

“It was an eerie sight: the blue water, the blue sky, the blue ice. It was all shades of blue,” Sheehan, who had never been to Antarctica before, says, dumbstruck by the beauty of it. He ran down to get his camera and then put on his coat and walked out to the bow of the ship, where he stood alone, one of the first human beings ever to confront this enormous glacier whose fate is inextricably linked with the future of civilization. “Usually I have a science mind — I am considering how we’re going to collect data — but at that moment, it was all the human reaction. I was just overwhelmed by the power and beauty of it.”

By 7 a.m., virtually the entire science and support team on the Palmer ­— maybe 25 people —­ crowded up onto the bridge, which is like a skybox five levels above the main deck, with big windows and a bridgewalk that lets you stroll around outside. We all had our cameras and iPhones out, snapping pictures as we cruised along the 75-foot tall craggy face of Thwaites’ ice shelf (the thick floating sheet of ice that extends out from the glacier like a fingernail). The weather was oddly warm and welcoming, ­ the wind calm, the sea tranquil. The Palmer was able to get within a few hundred feet of the calving front ­— an extremely rare thing to be able to do at any glacier, much less a giant like Thwaites, due to the risk of falling ice. The fissures in the ice glowed luminous blue. Emperor penguins dove off a nearby ice floe and swam beside the ship, surprisingly fast and graceful, leaping in and out of the water, as if the big ship were a long-lost friend.

The peacefulness of such glacial awesomeness was sublime. It was also spooky, like this massive ice wall marked the boundary of another dimension of time and space.

Getting to Thwaites was not easy. Our passage from the tip of South America to West Antarctica had taken a month, during which we weathered big waves, mechanical failures and a medical emergency.  But through it all there was a sense of mission about our journey, a sense that we were tasked with answering one of the most urgent scientific questions of our time ­ which is, how fast will Thwaites collapse?

Given how important the stability of Thwaites is to the future of civilization, surprisingly little is known about its history.  Most scientists believe that since the last interglacial period, which ended about 120,000 years ago, the waters we were sailing in had been covered with thousands of feet of ice. Other scientists suspect Thwaites may have melted significantly during that period, but there is no clear evidence of it. What is clear is that in the last few decades, as carbon pollution has accumulated in the atmosphere and the world has warmed, Thwaites’ ice shelf has retreated quickly, opening up new water during the summer at the glacier’s calving front that has never been explored or mapped.

Caption: Emperor penguins at the calving front of Thwaites glacier ice shelf in Antarctica Credit: James Kirkham

Emperor penguins at the calving front of Thwaites glacier ice shelf in Antarctica. Photo credit: James Kirkham

As a result, much of what scientists know about Thwaites comes from satellites. Satellite altimeters measure the height of the ice sheets, which can be used to calculate mass and melt rate. Gravity inversion technology is used to get a rough idea of the sea floor, which shapes how ocean currents reach the grounding line of the glacier. But all this data is approximate, filled with errors and miscalculations — a shadow of a shadow.

Reality is more precise ­and more likely to inspire awe. I stood on the bridgewing with Anna Wåhlin, an oceanographer from Sweden, who has been to Antarctica seven times before and thought she had seen plenty of ice in every shape and form. But as she was obviously moved by her encounter with Thwaites. “We are the first people to be here looking at this,” she said, her eyes scanning the blue wall of ice. “Ever.”

Wåhlin is a brilliant scientist, seemingly able to maintain a fully-functioning model of the Southern Ocean in her head. And so, naturally, she couldn’t wait to get to work comparing what the satellites had told her about the contours of the ocean floor around the glacier and what she could find out for herself (with the help of the Hugin, an automated underwater vehicle festooned with high-tech sensors that we had with us on the ship): “I want to get data!” Wahlin exclaimed with a wry smile as we cruised along the face of the glacier. “I want to start measuring things!”

Wåhlin’s excitement was easy to understand: She was face-to-face for the first time with a new world, one with many secrets to tell. Charles Darwin, the 19th-century scientist whose ideas about natural selection rocked the world, must have had similar feelings when he first encountered the strange creatures on the Galapagos Islands.

photo credit: James Kirkham

Darwin, however, didn’t arrive in the Galapagos on a ship with Gun N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” playing on the bridge’s sound system. And nobody would mistake the Palmer, a heavily-fortified icebreaker with industrial-strength cranes and winches, with a 19th-century schooner. Instead of a big wooden wheel, the mate at the helm, Luke Zeller, piloted the ship with what looked like a joystick. Behind us, dark smoke billowed out from the ship’s diesel engines. The paradox was impossible to escape: We were a carbon-burning machine investigating the impacts of burning carbon.

On the bridge, I talked to Rob Larter, the chief scientist on the trip, who has spent most his adult life thinking about and working in Antarctica. “It’s more chaotic than I expected,” he said when I asked him about his first impressions of the glacier. He explained that most ice shelves in Antarctica are flat, they are like slices of wedding cake (one iceberg that broke off was so precisely rectangular that it became an internet sensation last year). In contrast, many sections of the Thwaites ice shelf were a jumbled mess, with big crevasses and sloping shoulders. To Larter, the sloping shoulders of the ice shelf meant there was a lot of melting going on at the base of the ice sheet, which meant there was probably a lot of warm circumpolar deepwater flowing in below. Which, if true, is not good news for anyone who owns real estate in Miami ­or any other city vulnerable to rapid sea level rise.

We cruised along the calving face for a few hours, mesmerized by the wall of ice. “It’s like staring at a fire,” Lars Boehme, a scientist who is along to tag seals and turn them into ocean research assistants. “You can keep staring at ice forever.” As we sailed along, a sonar system in the ship’s hull sent out mile-wide pulses of high-pitched sound-waves. The ship’s computers listened for the echo of the sound waves and translated the variations into colorful, real-time maps of the troughs and undulations of the ocean floor 3,000 feet below.

By evening, the wind had kicked up, and the ship turned away from the face of the glacier to map more of the seabed in the region. People crashed out in their cabins, or lounged around in the labs, eating ice cream bars. Later, I found Sheehan at his desk in the ship’s lab, back at work on ocean physics data. I asked him to show me some pictures he had taken early that morning from the bow of the ship. He pulled them up on his Mac and flipped through them. In each one, the wall of ice loomed out of the blue, terrifying in its beauty. I asked Sheehan what he thought about now, looking at them.

“For me, it’s hard to envisage something so big, so permanent, so vast, to be as fragile as it is,” Sheehan said. “We equate size and grandeur with permanence ­ like you look at a mountain, and you think, ‘That will always be there.’ But looking at Thwaites forces you to realize that is not always the case. This glacier, huge as it is, doesn’t have permanence. If we come back next year, it will look completely different.” Sheehan paused, looking again at the photo of the glacier.  Above his head, just outside the porthole, the real thing loomed in the twilight. “It makes you realize that things you think will always be there might not be. That’s quite a thing to get your head around.”

Read Other Dispatches from Jeff Goodell’s Journey to Antarctica Series

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