UT grad student images water system beneath Antartic Glacier

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A UT graduate student has discovered water systems underneath glaciers in Antarctica, potentially changing the way climate scientists understand how sea levels can rise around the world.

Using a tool that emits radio waves underneath the Thwaites Glacier of West Antarctica, one of the largest, fastest and most unstable glaciers in the world, geological sciences graduate student Dustin Schroeder was able to find the water system after other scientists had faced challenges in obtaining clear images. 

The water systems is about as large as Florida and resembles the Everglades National Park. Because of its slippery composition, the water system is able to easily affect the movement of the Thwaites Glacier, Schroeder said.

“We knew there was a lot of water underneath this huge area and we wanted to map out the configuration,” Schroeder said.

Senior research scientist Don Blankenship, who supervised Schroeder’s study, said the research would dramatically impact how climate scientists understand the marine ice sheet.

“He has fundamentally changed what society has to do about rising sea levels,” Blankenship said. “It helps [us] understand the evolution of the marine ice sheet. Once this ice melts, it could contribute 60-70 meters or a 100-foot increase in sea-level.” 

According to Schoeder’s imaging, warm ocean water is melting parts of the glacier below sea level on its way to water lodged in the water system. Eventually, the glacier will slide into the sea when the slippery channels of the water system meet with the warmer ocean waters.

Because such a huge amount of water is trapped and unaccounted for, current models of how water levels will rise over the years are inaccurate, Blankenship said.

Insetad, Blankenship said, water is being held between the ice sheet and land like a bowl.

“The remaining questions are what triggers the marine [underwater] part of Antarctica, and how long will it take,” Blanksenship said. “What are the conditions deeper in the interior?”

This is Schroeder’s first part of his doctoral thesis. Schoeder said he plans to continue work with glaciers and ice sheets in the rest of the continent, and in the Arctic and Greenland.

Follow Luqman Adeniyi on Twitter @Luqman_Adeniyi.