Scientists measure how quickly crucial Antarctica glacier is melting

Climate change's connections with the extreme heat and weather events in the U.S. and around the globe have been well established. But climate change is also having a measurable impact on a much slower-moving development: the loss of glaciers and the melting of the ice. Miles O'Brien brings us this update on a scientist's quest to chronicle what's happening with one of the most important glaciers.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In addition to its connection with the extreme heat and weather events here and around the globe, climate change is also having a measurable impact on a much slower-moving development, the loss of glaciers and the melting of the ice.

    Science correspondent Miles O'Brien has been chronicling one scientist's quest to track what's happening with one of the most important glaciers.

    Here's his latest update.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It was like a scene from "Star Wars," when climate scientist David Holland finally made it to ground zero.

  • David Holland, New York University:

    Just absolute, insane fun, and I actually thought it was going to die.

    We flew the helicopter through those crevasses.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    These ice canyons are in the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. It's the so-called Doomsday Glacier, and you are seeing it in its death throes as close as anyone ever has.

  • David Holland:

    This is perhaps the most important glaciers in the world in terms of its potential impact this century.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The size of Florida, Thwaites stores enough water to increase global sea level by almost three feet if it all melted, 10 feet if the ice it helps hold in place slides into the sea behind it.

    And here the ice is melting at a stunning rate, 100 meters, more than 300 feet, a year.

    How long can it last?

  • David Holland:

    That's an excellent question. That's really the one we're pushing for is, we want to have, if you will, an ice forecast. Without an ice forecast, which we currently don't have, we have really no insight into our future.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Holland is a professor at New York University. There, we watched some scenes from his epic voyage.

    Year after year, he risks his life here and in the Arctic in pursuit of elusive data. For starters, he wants to know the water temperature below these cracks. But the probe holding the instruments isn't breaking through.

  • David Holland:

    There is a thin film of ice, maybe an inch or so. When you drop the probe, it hits the ice and it won't go through it.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Finding a way through that thin layer of ice was the umpteenth challenge in a litany that he encountered during this long, unpredictable and yet serendipitous Antarctic campaign.

  • David Holland:

    This was the most difficult mission we have ever been on.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    They arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand, on December 20. It took three weeks for their COVID quarantines to lift and their equipment to arrive.

  • David Holland:

    Ready to set sail next week?

  • Person:

    Yes.

  • David Holland:

    All right.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Funded by the National Science Foundation and its counterparts in the U.K., Canada and South Korea, three dozen researchers boarded the South Korean icebreaker Araon. Brimming with gear, the ship set course for Thwaites 3,000 miles away.

  • David Holland:

    This idea was just go straight to the shelf. And it turns out that brilliant idea led to failure, because we weren't planning on sea ice.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Araon is a Korean portmanteau, meaning All Seas. Seemingly true to her name, the ship cuts through most ice like butter at 14 knots, most ice.

    For unknown reasons, a huge conglomeration of sea ice floated in the Amundsen Sea between them and Thwaites. Eventually, it was too much for the Araon.

  • David Holland:

    The dreams of reaching Thwaites have pretty much been dashed now.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    What are your thoughts at that point?

  • David Holland:

    That we have lost the prize, actually. We were not going to be able to do this and we were not going to get that data.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    All geared up with no place to go, team Holland started eying a consolation prize.

  • David Holland:

    It's Monday morning, January 24. We arrived here. This is the Dotson Ice Shelf.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The Dotson Ice Shelf is stable, not a heavyweight global threat like Thwaites, but it is a local target of opportunity.

    So they got busy deploying the scientific field camp they had designed for Thwaites on Dotson.

  • David Holland:

    All the helo operations are moving at lightning speed.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    They had to airlift 50 tons of gear one ton at a time.

  • David Holland:

    Equipment and people are shuttling off the ship to our base camp about 20 kilometers inland behind me.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The mission there? Drill a one-foot-wide, quarter-mile-deep hole through the ice to the sea beneath, drop instruments in and, leave a mooring behind to monitor what is happening where most of the melting occurs.

    They drilled with hot water made from snow has shoveled into a 2,600 gallon container. As they set up the gear and started drilling, Holland scrambled to make his complex mooring work.

    The pressure was on.

  • David Holland:

    So, the guys think they will be through in about six hours. And after that, we're kind of ready for the mooring. But the mooring is not really ready for them.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Up until this point, the weather had been benign, by Antarctic standards, clear and cold. But on the day that everything had to be ready:

  • David Holland:

    Early Monday morning, and the weather has gone to (EXPLETIVE DELETED). And now the snow has really started to blow.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    There was no time to hunker down. So, down went the mooring, fingers crossed.

  • David Holland:

    It is Wednesday, February 10. The mooring was installed and frozen in about a day-and-a-half ago.

    Some 1,300 meters or 4,000 feet below me is an instrument that's talking right now with this computer. Woo-hoo!

    OK, a little bit of restraint now. Yes. (EXPLETIVE DELETED) Yes!

    (CHEERING)

  • David Holland:

    There was a lot of screaming and hoo-ha, even though it was the middle of a blizzard. It was like, this works. It was still the sense that we didn't achieve what we wanted.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    He wanted those instruments beneath Thwaites at the place where the glacier meets the land. There, warm seawater interacts with cooler melted freshwater from the glacier, an area called the boundary layer. It creates turbulence.

  • David Holland:

    So, it's that turbulence at the boundary layer that is how warm water from the ocean gets to the ice. It has to go through this boundary layer, but we don't understand the turbulence in it. So we want to capture it and see it.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And, as the ice fractures and melts, the water flow gets even more complicated. Understanding this is crucial for David Holland if he is ever to succeed at creating an accurate ice forecast.

    But, for now, any crumb of data helps, which brings us back to where we began. With time and fuel just enough for a few extended flights, Holland and his team flew to the open wound at Thwaites. And after the probes brimming with instruments refused to penetrate the ice, they filled a few was shackles from the ship.

  • David Holland:

    We call it a Shackleton bomb. And this incredibly heavy piece of metal, you throw that out the door first, and it creates a hole and then you throw the real probe afterward.

    And that worked brilliantly.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    They got a dozen readings.

  • David Holland:

    It's the first ever data from Western Thwaites, which, again, I think is the most important glacier to study.

    What we saw is data that the warmest water anywhere in Antarctica is under Thwaites, almost four degrees centigrade above freezing, so eight degrees Fahrenheit, which, if you think about it, is crazy warm for water near ice.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    That's 40 degrees Fahrenheit. You don't have to be a climate scientist to understand how serious that number is.

    It appears the ice forecast that David Holland is so determined to create won't predict if, but, rather, when. Until then, the world will have to wait and wonder how long the glaciers can teeter on this precipice.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien.

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