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Scientists have new details on an Antarctic glacier crucial to future sea level rise


We are nearing the end of summer in Antarctica, and it's the third year in a row that sea ice there has melted to new record lows since scientists started keeping track in the late 1970s. That's the conclusion of a report out this week from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The dwindling sea ice is part of a long-term trend reflecting shifts caused by a warming planet. Ted Scambos is part of a team that spent the last five years studying the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. That glacier is like a plug, holding back a much larger quantity of ice. And Ted Scambos joins us from Antarctica. Welcome.

TED SCAMBOS: Oh, hi. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: You've been going to that southern continent since the early 1990s. And so before we get to the detailed scientific measurements you've been taking, let me just ask whether you have seen changes in the ice in your own experience going there year after year.

SCAMBOS: Yeah, no doubt about it. Not everywhere in Antarctica has obvious huge changes, but some of the areas in Antarctica that are furthest to the north, so in the warmest parts of the continent, have begun to change dramatically, big enough changes so that, you know, the maps have to be redrawn, basically, because the ice simply isn't there, even after centuries of having been there, millennia of having been there.

SHAPIRO: Do you see it with your own eyes, flying in year after year, or coming in by boat that you see the shoreline change?

SCAMBOS: Absolutely. What we're studying right now in the Antarctic Peninsula has seen huge changes.

SHAPIRO: Now, you've been studying the Thwaites Glacier for the last five years, and there is a figure that I find shocking, which is that if it melts, the ice that it's holding back could eventually raise global sea levels by 10 feet. For that reason, some people have called it the Doomsday Glacier. What are the scenarios that you are actually anticipating?

SCAMBOS: Well, yeah, that's correct. We've had a large project here, an international project that's been studying Thwaites Glacier for exactly this reason, that the threat from Thwaites is significant, even if it is going to play out over the course of many decades to centuries. Some of the scenarios suggested that Thwaites could potentially collapse in a fashion that was quite rapid and would cause a real threat to many of the world's coastal cities. Those scenarios have been addressed by the research, and we're finding that it's less and less likely that there's an immediate threat from Thwaites within the next 10, 20, 40 years. However, over the longer term, we will see sea level rise from this glacier, but not at a catastrophic rate. Eventually, we may see this glacier begin to go through this cycle of collapse that was talked about before.

SHAPIRO: As you wrap up this specific five-year project that you've been doing on Thwaites Glacier, how are you feeling compared to when you started?

SCAMBOS: Like, we've learned a lot. Like, not only have we learned a lot. We can tell people a lot about exactly what's going on in that region and what to expect in the future. I think we have been able to get at a better forecast for what's likely to come out of Antarctica over the next century or so. It's not good news. It's still going to be a sea level rise rate, but it's not the catastrophic news that may have led to that nickname that you're talking about, Doomsday Glacier.

SHAPIRO: Antarctica is an incredibly unforgiving, remote place. Can you give us a sense of what a typical day of research is like studying a glacier?

SCAMBOS: Yeah. Well, we set up a camp of about five or 10 tents, one of them sort of a big cook tent and work tent. You have to melt all your water. You have to, you know, cook everything, keep everything organized. And then you get out and start collecting data. And then, you know, if you do get bad weather, a storm or something, then you're stuck inside your tent for up to days at a time. So usually, people keep a couple of days' worth of food in their tent with them so that they can get by while they're they're completely cooped up. It's such a fantastic challenge. And it is beautiful in a very unique sort of way. And, of course, you are sort of literally on the edge of the earth. And you go to a place like Thwaites, you're hundreds of miles away from anybody else, and in many cases, walking across an area that's never been crossed before.

SHAPIRO: That's ice scientist Ted Scambos speaking with us from Antarctica. Thank you so much.

SCAMBOS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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