Norwich team head to Antarctica for vital climate change study

Karen Heywood on a boat wearing hi-vis and a hard hat

UEA academic Karen Heywood - Credit: KAREN HEYWOOD

On the 100th anniversary of the death of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, a group of scientists at the University of East Anglia in Norwich have headed to Antarctica to study climate change.

After a month of quarantining, they set sail from Punta Arenas in Chile on January 6 together with a total team of 32 international scientists. The mission is to study the Thwaites ‘doomsday glacier’ - about the size of the isle of Britain - which is particularly vulnerable to climate and ocean changes.

Underwater robots ‘Boaty McBoatface’ and ‘Ran’ will travel underneath the glacier in order to determine how much this particular glacier is impacting sea-level rise on the whole planet. These underwater vessels allow scientists to study areas of the glacier that are otherwise unreachable for humans.

Karen Heywood, professor of environmental sciences at UEA, is leading a team remotely from the university in Norwich. She and her team will be piloting six smaller robots, so called ocean gliders, once they’ve been launched into the water at Thwaites. They travel slower than ‘Boaty’ but will operate for longer – up to a month.

“This is a massively ambitious mission that we have been planning for several years. The robots will collect detailed data that will enable us to understand what will happen in the future” she said.

Today, ice melting from the Thwaites into the Amundsen sea accounts for about four percent of global sea level rise. A run-away collapse of the glacier would contribute around an additional 25 inches to sea-level rise over the coming centuries.

Dr Rob Hall, also from UEA, is the chief scientist in charge of the voyage. He said: “It’s very exciting, though also daunting, to be leading this campaign. We’re looking forward to putting our wide range of scientific instruments into the water to see what we will learn about how the ocean melts the ice shelf from below."

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The group is travelling to the glacier on the U.S. National Science Foundation icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer.

The voyage will take 65 days and is a part of a five-year collaboration between the UK and The United States.

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