I’m writing this aboard the Nathanial B. Palmer, a 308 foot-long ocean research vessel that is, at this moment, tied up at a dock in Punta Arenas, Chile. On board the ship are 26 scientists and 31 crew members and support staff, as well as many millions of dollars worth of scientific equipment. We departed for Antarctica two nights ago, but we had to return to port because of a problem with the ship’s rudder. Divers are in the water now — presumably it will get fixed shortly and we will depart for a week-long transit to the West Coast of Antarctica, where we will spend the next six weeks in one of the most remote regions of the most remote continent in the world.
The mission of this scientific expedition is straightforward: to better understand the risk of catastrophic collapse of Thwaites glacier, one of the largest glaciers in West Antarctica. Thwaites glacier is perhaps the most important tipping point in the Earth’s climate system. Thwaites is the cork in the wine bottle for the entire West Antarctic ice sheet. If it collapses, it could dump enough ice into the ocean to cause seas to rise by 10 feet or more. That would doom Miami, Boston, New York City, London, Shanghai, Jakarta — and virtually every other coastal city in the world. As Thwaites goes, so goes human civilization as we know it.
The trip I’m about to take is the first expedition in a $25 million, five-year joint research project between the National Science Foundation and the British Antarctic Survey. During this five-year research project, scientists will poke and prod the glacier from every direction, map the ground beneath it, measure changes in ocean currents that are bringing warm water to the base of the glacier, and dig up mud near the front of the glacier to better understand how quickly it has retreated during past warm periods. As Robert Larter, a marine geophysicist with the British Antarctic Survey who is the chief scientist on the trip, told us during a science meeting aboard the ship last night, “The question we want to answer is, is West Antarctica on the verge of unstoppable collapse?”
But first, of course, we have to get to Antarctica. Right now, as we wait for the rudder to be fixed, everyone is sorting out their gear, meeting their cabin-mates (two people to a cabin, in small bunk beds with railings that can be installed so you aren’t thrown out of bed during high seas). The ship has five decks which are connected through a maze of green steel doors and stairways. Because this is, in part, a US government sponsored trip, this afternoon we all had to watch videos about sexual harassment and environmental rules in Antarctica (which included tips on how to pick seed pods out of the Velcro on your winter jacket so as to not import any invasive species to the continent). We also practiced getting into the lifeboat and donning our bright orange immersion suits, which would, in theory, keep us warm for a few hours if we had to abandon ship in the icy waters of the Southern Ocean. We have learned that everything must be strapped down and have tested sea sickness medications and been advised where to puke (toilet or trash can, if possible) when the big seas hit as we cross Drake’s Passage, the notoriously treacherous open water between South America and Antarctic.
For the scientists aboard the ship, there is a lot of unpacking and prepping and strategizing happening right now. I’ve spent most of my career as a journalist around scientists, but on a trip like this, you really feel the urgency of their work. To get invited on this cruise, scientists had to submit lengthy proposals about what they hope to discover and why it is important. Selection was highly competitive. The people onboard are the NBA All-Stars of the science world. And there is a lot of pressure to make the most of their time and not to screw anything up. Once we are at sea, work will go on 24 hours a day, every day.
“There is not a moment to waste on a trip like this,” Robert Larter told me while we were standing on the deck of the ship, watching cranes lift containers full of scientific equipment onto the deck. “This ship is very expensive to run” — Larter estimates the Palmer costs $30,000 a day to operate — “and this is your one shot to get to a place like Thwaites glacier. You want to take full advantage of that.”
But there is also the excitement of exploring one of the most remote and consequential regions of the planet. Antarctica is the last uncivilized place on Earth, a vast continent where about 70 percent of the earth’s fresh water is locked up in ice. For most the 20th Century, climate scientists thought Antarctica was a cold and stable place — most of their attention was focused on Greenland, which is melting like a popsicle on a summer sidewalk as the climate warms.
But as it turns out, Antarctica is in trouble, too. But instead of melting from the surface like Greenland, the ice in parts of Antarctica is melting from below, thanks to warmer ocean currents (I’ll talk more about this in future dispatches). The Antarctic lost 40 billion tons of melting ice to the ocean each year from 1979 to 1989. That figure rose to 252 billion tons lost per year beginning in 2009, according to a study published recently by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That means the region is losing six times as much ice as it was 40 years ago, an unprecedented pace in the era of modern measurements. (It takes about 360 billion tons of ice to produce one millimeter of global sea-level rise.)
And nowhere in Antarctica is more unstable than Thwaites glacier. To many climate scientists, this has come as a big surprise. “Until about 25 years ago, we knew virtually nothing about Thwaites glacier,” Larter told me over dinner in the mess hall last night. Even more alarming, this particular glacier is a good example of what scientists call “a threshold system.” That means instead of melting in a fairly predictable way, as the ice sheets in Greenland are doing, it could collapse suddenly (I’ll write more about this in future posts as well). In addition, scientists now understand that Thwaites glacier is like the cork in the bottle for the entire West Antarctic ice sheet — if it goes, the entire ice sheet could collapse into the sea relatively quickly, adding eight, nine, 10 feet to the height of the world’s oceans. As the climate warms, how big is the risk that Thwaites will collapse? How soon could it happen? Those are perhaps the two most important questions in climate science right now, and they are precisely what we will be exploring on this journey to Antarctica.
But first, we have to get the rudder fixed and ride out the rough seas and rogue waves in Drake’s Passage. Talk over breakfast in the mess hall this morning was about a storm brewing just west of the passage. But as Larter, a veteran of many Antarctic crossings put it with a wry smile, “There is always a storm on the way to Antarctica.”