Into the Thaw: Decoding Thwaites Glacier

Antarctica Dispatch 4: Fieldwork begins, cue the seals

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seals

Scientists check out a seal on the shore of one of the tiny Schaefer Islands off West Antarctica’s Canisteo Peninsula. They’re hoping to enlist the seal as a climate change research assistant by tagging it with environmental sensors.

Credit:

Carolyn Beeler/The World 

How quickly will Antarctica’s massive Thwaites Glacier melt, and what will that mean for global sea levels and coastal cities? Researchers are sailing toward Thwaites this month on the first leg of a five-year, international effort to try to answer that pressing question, and along the way they’re enlisting local seals as research assistants.

The World’s Carolyn Beeler is along for the ride and brings us the latest from the excursion.

seal tagging

The scientists are sailing south toward Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier on the icebreaker known as the Nathaniel B. Palmer. The expedition is part of a five-year, international effort to try to determine how fast the massive glacier is melting as the planet warms and what that will mean for global sea level rise over the next century.

Credit:

Carolyn Beeler/The World 

seal tagging

A Zodiac boat carries the researchers from the Nathaniel B. Palmer to the Schaefer Islands in search of seals for tagging.

Credit:

Carolyn Beeler/The World 

seals

Under the watchful eyes of local penguins, Bastien Queste, of the University of East Anglia, and Lars Boehme, of the University of St. Andrews, both in the UK, catch the seal they spotted before anesthetizing her to affix sensors to her head. The sensors will measure depth, temperature and salinity for roughly a year as the seal swims in the water around the Thwaites Glacier.

Credit:

Carolyn Beeler/The World 

seals

Sensor attached, the seal is ready to resume its normal life. The instruments are part of a range of methods and tools researchers are using to learn more about how changes in the water off West Antarctica may be melting the Thwaites Glacier.

Credit:

Carolyn Beeler/The World 

Seal work done under permit number FCO UK No. 29/2018.

Related: 

Antarctica Dispatch 3: The ship's first encounters with icebergs

Antarctica Dispatch 2: Crossing the Drake Passage

Antarctica Dispatch 1: Gearing up and shipping out

What Thwaites Glacier can tell us about the future of West Antarctica

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