UCI News

UCI Earth system scientist joins international team studying Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica

May 1, 2018
UCI Earth system scientist joins international team studying Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica
Experts refer to Thwaites Glacier as the weak underbelly of West Antarctica because of its rapid, ongoing disintegration and potential for raising global sea levels by as much as 4 percent. Photo courtesy of the National Science Foundation

Mathieu Morlighem, UCI assistant professor of Earth system science, is contributing his expertise in ice sheet numerical modeling to the newly launched International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration. The five-year, $25 million project, co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the U.K.’s Natural Environment Research Council, aims to provide answers to some of the most pressing inquiries about ice mass loss near the South Pole and the impact it will have on global sea level rise. “Thwaites, one of the biggest glaciers in West Antarctica, has been accelerating, widening and thinning over the past three decades, and some recent studies have suggested that it has reached a point of no return due to the geometry of its bed,” Morlighem said. “How fast this glacier will disintegrate or how quickly it will find a new stable state are the most important questions we have regarding the future of the West Antarctic ice sheet, and numerical modeling is the best way to address them.” His project is one of eight initiatives under the ITGC. Morlighem said that he and his collaborators at Columbia University, MIT, and the U.K.’s Northumbria University intend to improve computer simulations of Thwaites using three coupled ice/ocean numerical models to reduce uncertainty in the projection of the glacier’s behavior and future contribution to rising sea levels around the world over the coming centuries. This region is estimated to have enough water to raise global sea levels by 12 feet, and Thwaites is already responsible for 4 percent of today’s sea-level rise.  “This is one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been involved in,” he said. “I am looking forward to seeing what we will discover, and hopefully provide reliable predictions for the international scientific community.”