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Surprisingly warm water found on underside of Antarctica's 'Doomsday Glacier'

Icefin, an underwater robot, took a wild journey underneath a melting glacier in Antarctica.
Icefin, an underwater robot, took a wild journey underneath a melting glacier in Antarctica.
(Image: © Rob Robbins/USAP Diver)

An underwater robot named Icefin that has gone where no submersible has gone before — to the underbelly of Antarctica's "Doomsday Glacier" — has uncovered unusually warm temperatures there. 

The hunk of ice, officially known as the Thwaites Glacier, earned its ominous nickname because it is one of Antarctica's fastest melting glaciers. Even so, scientists were surprised to learn that waters at the ground line, the region where the glacier meets the sea, are more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) above the normal freezing temperature, according to news reports.

"Warm waters in this part of the world, as remote as they may seem, should serve as a warning to all of us about the potential dire changes to the planet brought about by climate change," David Holland, a lead researcher on the expedition and director of the Environmental Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at New York University, told the Chicago Tribune.

Related: Album: Stunning photos of Antarctic ice

The journey to collect this data wasn't easy. Scientists dropped the torpedo-shaped Icefin through a 2,300-foot-deep (700 meters) hole they had drilled through the glacier.

"We're proud of Icefin, since it represents a new way of looking at glaciers and ice shelves," Britney Schmidt, lead scientist for Icefin and an associate professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, said in a statement. "For really the first time, we can drive miles under the ice to measure and map processes we can't otherwise reach. We've taken the first close-up look at a grounding zone. It's our 'walking on the moon' moment." The grounding zone is the region where the underside of the glacier meets the seawater beneath it.

The team, dubbed MELT, or Melting at Thwaites grounding zone and its control on sea level, spent the last two months in minus 22 F (minus 30 C) weather at the glacier for the project. After descending the nearly half-mile hole through the glacier, Icefin swam more than a mile to the grounding zone. As it puttered along, Icefin took measurements and images so that scientists could later map the area, as well as understand the temperatures and the changing landscape there. 

Image 1 of 4

British Antarctic Survey researchers lower the hot water drill as they begin drilling through Thwaites Glacier so that Icefin would be able to reach the glacier's grounding zone.

British Antarctic Survey researchers lower the hot water drill as they begin drilling through Thwaites Glacier so that Icefin would be able to reach the glacier's grounding zone. (Image credit: ITGC_MELT/BESchmidt/DDichek)
Image 2 of 4

Icefin's team members, including those with the British Antarctic Survey, take part in Icefin's deployment.

Icefin's team members, including those with the British Antarctic Survey, take part in Icefin's deployment. (Image credit: TGC_MELT/BESchmidt/DDichek/AMullen)
Image 3 of 4

A windstorm at Thwaites Glacier blows snow over the drill tower, Icefin launch frame and control tent.

A windstorm at Thwaites Glacier blows snow over the drill tower, Icefin launch frame and control tent. (Image credit: ITGC_MELT/BESchmidt/DDichek)
Image 4 of 4

Icefin captured this image of sediments, rock and ice at the Thwaites Glacier grounding zone.

Icefin captured this image of sediments, rock and ice at the Thwaites Glacier grounding zone. (Image credit: Icefin/ITGC_MELT/ BESchmidt)

Thwaites Glacier, roughly the size of Florida, is melting at an increasingly fast rate. Its melt already accounts for about 4% of global sea rise, Georgia Tech reported. The amount of ice flowing out of Thwaites and the adjacent glaciers into the sea has doubled in the past 30 years, making it one of the fastest-changing areas of Antarctica.

Moreover, Thwaites is crucial to Antarctica because it slows the ice behind it from freely flowing into the ocean. The glacier's ice shelf, or its permanent floating ice sheets, act like dirt in a clogged drain, impeding the glacier from flowing full force into the ocean, Stef Lhermitte, an assistant professor in the Department of Geoscience and Remote Sensing at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, previously told Live Science.

"We know that warmer ocean waters are eroding many of West Antarctica's glaciers, but we're particularly concerned about Thwaites," Keith Nicholls, an oceanographer with the British Antarctic Survey and the United Kingdom lead on the MELT team, said in the Georgia Tech statement. "This new data will provide a new perspective of the processes taking place, so we can predict future change with more certainty."

In addition to deploying Icefin, the researchers sent out ocean instruments and took sediment cores. The team even sent out a second Icefin vehicle to another location — the Ross Ice Shelf — in collaboration with Antarctica New Zealand.

The work was shown as a BBC World News special report yesterday (Jan. 28) as part of the 200th anniversary of Antarctica's discovery. In the meantime, the researchers are still analyzing the data from Icefin and plan to publish their findings in March, according to The New York Times.

Originally published on Live Science.

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  • Rodkeh
    It is only a surprise to these frauds calling themselves scientists. There is no threat and this Doomsday Glacier is just a feeble attempt at fear mongering. There is no Doomsday anything and there is no climate crisis anywhere on this planet, at this time.
    Reply
  • Zsport
    Hi Rodkeh, can you present your data and or measurements, just saying it's not true may work with some folks but as an Engineer I need data.
    Reply
  • Rodkeh
    Zsport said:
    Hi Rodkeh, can you present your data and or measurements, just saying it's not true may work with some folks but as an Engineer I need data.
    Can you give us the meaning of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics?
    Reply
  • ESmiles
    Not sure why it's a surprise as it's the first time its been done. Surely anything else was a 'best guesstimate'. You guessed. You were wrong. That's all there is here. Nothing else can be inferred unless you've tested before and found a marked change. Even then, unless you have previous years of tests to compare, you still can't say too much. Everything here is inference. Not science.
    Reply
  • Pradeep Krish
    Zsport said:
    Hi Rodkeh, can you present your data and or measurements, just saying it's not true may work with some folks but as an Engineer I need data.
    Not supporting any others but its logical why only that glaciar is warm beneath while the surrounding area is freezing. Is it because of a potentially warm ground beneath?
    Reply
  • Pliny the Elder
    Hmmm....could there be another explanation other than global warming. :unsure::unsure::unsure:

    https://www.livescience.com/46194-volcanoes-melt-antarctic-glaciers.html
    Reply
  • Sarsarregsy
    Underwater Volcanoes activity from increasing number of hydrothermal vents?
    Reply
  • Ahmad Alkuwatli
    Well Rodkeh we are here as a community appreciate solid evidences to prove or disprove something, so I'm not interested listening to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics unless it is accompanied by solid evidences and numbers supporting your idea. If you don't have it I appreciate that keeping silent or telling the truth based on evidence would be better at the end with all respect to your idea, your argument is weak
    Reply
  • Truthseeker007
    Rodkeh said:
    It is only a surprise to these frauds calling themselves scientists. There is no threat and this Doomsday Glacier is just a feeble attempt at fear mongering. There is no Doomsday anything and there is no climate crisis anywhere on this planet, at this time.

    If anything it is a manufactured crisis and yes a lot of fear mongering and fear porn. If you follow the money a lot of the money comes from George Soros and Billy Gates on the climate change scandal. And I don't know about you but you can just see the evil in those two guys eyes. They sure aren't doing it to help the world.
    Reply
  • Truthseeker007
    Ahmad Alkuwatli said:
    Well Rodkeh we are here as a community appreciate solid evidences to prove or disprove something, so I'm not interested listening to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics unless it is accompanied by solid evidences and numbers supporting your idea. If you don't have it I appreciate that keeping silent or telling the truth based on evidence would be better at the end with all respect to your idea, your argument is weak

    Kind of hard to be part of a community if you have only posted one time on here. How are you part of the community here? I have never even seen you. I suggest maybe posting a little more here before you are going to tell someone to keep silent. People have a right to opinions and every post don't need to be backed up with evidence. He made a common sense statement the way I see it.
    Reply