Thwaites Glacier is a massive glacier about the size of Florida in the West Antarctic. It’s been nicknamed the Doomsday Glacier because it’s disintegrating at an alarming rate and is expected to drive up sea levels by more than half a metre if it disappears completely. That’s not expected to happen in our lifetimes, and parts of the glacier are melting at a slower rate than computer models had predicted.
It’s one of the fastest-changing ice-ocean systems in Antarctica, and scientists have been studying what’s going on using an underwater robot called Icefin. Icefin is a cylindrical underwater drone with an array of sensors, including cameras, to document what’s happening beneath the ice shelf. Although melting below the ice where it meets the ocean is slower than expected, melting in cracks and crevasses is happening more quickly.
According to SciTechDaily, the grounding zone of Thwaites Glacier – the point where the glacier meets the sea floor – has retreated 14km (~8.5 miles) since the late 1990s. With much of the ice sheet underwater, it is susceptible to irreversible ice losses. New data in two papers published in the journal Nature has shown that the melting is happening slower than computer models had previously predicted, but it’s still melting at a pretty disastrous rate.
The Icefin robot being used to explore the glacier is a modular hybrid remote or autonomous underwater vehicle (ROV/AUV). As well as cameras, it uses a number of technologies including sonar, doppler, chemical, and biological sensors to explore the ice and water conditions beneath ice shelves. In this case, the Thwaites Glacier.
Through the use of Icefin, researchers have discovered that while the ice below the shelf isn’t melting as rapidly as previously thought, crevasses and terraces are still melting rapidly. These gaps allow saltwater to flow through, causing more ice to melt and the cracks to widen. This could cause large sections of the shelf to disconnect or collapse completely. Paul Cutler, program director in NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, said, “these important observations demonstrate the value of hard-won, on-the-ground observations from these remote locations“.
Designed to survey underwater environments that were previously impossible to explore, Icefin’s observations have provided great insight into how global warming affects things at the Thwaites Glacier and our planet as a whole. And Icefin isn’t just destined for underwater work in Antarctica, either. Ultimately, it may be going into space. Or at least, a descendent of it.
The Cornell team responsible for Icefin not only want to explore Earth. They say that while Icefin allows them to do exactly that, it simultaneously helps them develop the technologies required to one day explore other oceans in our solar system. For example, Jupiter’s moons of Europa and Ganymede are believed to contain significant liquid water deposits. And these aren’t the only ones out there.
While the quality of the footage may not be great, Icefin isn’t exactly packing a RED cinema camera. Its camera module is only HD. This is presumably to allow for a larger pixel size so that it can more easily see in the dim lighting conditions of the undersea environment. For the scientists, though, the visual reference likely also isn’t anywhere near as important as the other sensor data that Icefin is able to collect.
Still, it would be nice to see Icefin spit out some higher-resolution photos and footage in the future, especially if it manages to make it off-world!
To find out more about Icefin, the work being done with it, and its hopes for the future, visit the Icefin website at Cornell.