NSF-NERC: Thwaites-Amundsen Regional Survey and Network (TARSAN) Integrating Atmosphere-Ice-Ocean Processes affecting the Sub-Ice-Shelf Environment
Thwaites TARSAN Project
This project contributes to the joint initiative launched by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.K. Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to substantially improve decadal and longer-term projections of ice loss and sea-level rise originating from Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. Thwaites and neighboring glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment are rapidly losing mass in response to recent climate warming and related changes in ocean circulation. Mass loss from the Amundsen Sea Embayment could lead to the eventual collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, raising the global sea level by up to 2.5 meters (8 feet) in as short as 500 years. The processes driving the loss appear to be warmer ocean circulation and changes in the width and flow speed of the glacier, but a better understanding of these changes is needed to refine predictions of how the glacier will evolve. One highly sensitive process is the transitional flow of glacier ice from land onto the ocean to become a floating ice shelf. This flow of ice from grounded to floating is affected by changes in air temperature and snowfall at the surface; the speed and thickness of ice feeding it from upstream; and the ocean temperature, salinity, bathymetry, and currents that the ice flows into. The project team will gather new measurements of each of these local environmental conditions so that it can better predict how future changes in air, ocean, or the ice will affect the loss of ice to the ocean in this region.
Current and anticipated near-future mass loss from Thwaites Glacier and nearby Amundsen Sea Embayment region is mainly attributed to reduction in ice-shelf buttressing due to sub-ice-shelf melting by intrusion of relatively warm Circumpolar Deep Water into sub-ice-shelf cavities. Such predictions for mass loss, however, still lack understanding of the dominant processes at and near grounding zones, especially their spatial and temporal variability, as well as atmospheric and oceanic drivers of these processes. This project aims to constrain and compare these processes for the Thwaites and the Dotson Ice Shelves, which are connected through upstream ice dynamics, but influenced by different submarine troughs. The team's specific objectives are to: 1) install atmosphere-ice-ocean multi-sensor remote autonomous stations on the ice shelves for two years to provide sub-daily continuous observations of concurrent oceanic, glaciologic, and atmospheric conditions; 2) measure ocean properties on the continental shelf adjacent to ice-shelf fronts (using seal tagging, glider-based and ship-based surveys, and existing moored and conductivity-temperature-depth-cast data), 3) measure ocean properties into sub-ice-shelf cavities (using autonomous underwater vehicles) to detail ocean transports and heat fluxes; and 4) constrain current ice-shelf and sub-ice-shelf cavity geometry, ice flow, and firn properties for the ice-shelves (using radar, active-source seismic, and gravimetric methods) to better understand the impact of ocean and atmosphere on the ice-sheet change. The team will also engage the public and bring awareness to this rapidly changing component of the cryosphere through a "Live from the Ice" social media campaign in which the public can follow the action and data collection from the perspective of tagged seals and autonomous stations.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.
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