UTEP researchers have made inroads into studying glacier melt

Newswise – El Paso, Texas (September 5, 2023) – Researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso are using seismic data to monitor the structure and movement of Earth's largest glacier, Tveit.

Thwaites is a Florida-sized glacier in West Antarctica whose continued melting plays a major role in global sea level rise. By itself, Thwaites currently contributes 4% of sea-level rise, and its collapse could release enough ice to raise sea levels by about 25 inches, says Mariana Karplus, Ph.D., associate professor in the department. Earth, Environmental and Resource Sciences and Principal Investigator of the project.

Now UTEP scientists are working to understand how the glacier's ice is changing and what that means for the future. By measuring the physical properties of the ice and rock, and understanding which parts are moving fast and why, they hope to map the future movement of the Thwaite and the resulting sea level rise.

UTEP is a member of the Thwaites Interdisciplinary Margin Evolution (TIME) team, which is part of the Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), a consortium of eight research teams from the United States and Great Britain working together to study all aspects. on glacier behavior.

Led by Karplus, the UTEP team made four trips to Antarctica to measure the ice sheet's movement and model its future movement. They plan to return later this year.

“This November, we will begin our fifth and final field season in Antarctica to collect geophysical data that will help us better understand changes in Thwaites Glacier and its future contribution to sea level rise,” Karplus said. “Given our recent fascinating discoveries, I'm excited to finally be back to observe and listen to the stories the glacier has to share with us.”

The eastern edge – that is, the border – of Thwaites is called the eastern shear line. According to scientists, the ice on one side of the boundary moves much faster than on the other side. The reason for the behavior is one of the many scientific mysteries about the glacier that researchers are trying to solve.

Part of the work involves planting sensors in the ice to measure ice tremors, which are sudden events where the ice cracks or breaks apart, similar to an earthquake. Through recent work at Thwaites, Karplus and his team have used seismic data collected from sensors to assess the structure and properties of ice and rock, which are important for understanding the glacier's overall movement and behavior.

Karplus uses the analogy of a hammer hitting a rock versus a hammer hitting sand. When a hammer hits solid rock, the energy reverberates quickly and is felt almost immediately on the other side of the rock. However, in loose sand, energy waves dissipate quickly and are difficult to feel. Similarly, seismic waves will travel very quickly through dense, cold ice, but more slowly through soft and potentially melting ice.

Lucia Gonzalez is a UTEP fifth-year PhD student in geological sciences with a focus on glaciology and geophysics. He was part of a team that traveled to Antarctica between November 2022 and February 2023 and installed a number of sensors that measure earthquakes in the ice.

“Living and doing scientific fieldwork in Antarctica has been one of the most exciting and fulfilling opportunities of my life,” said Gonzalez. “From the lifestyle and incredible scenery in such a remote location to the worldwide friendship, it was a unique experience.”

He added: “I am confident that our team's efforts to collect data and produce science on Thwaites Glacier this past and upcoming season will improve high-quality research in the years to come.”

UTEP has received approximately $970,000 from the National Science Foundation since 2018 to conduct research. Co-lead researchers on the project are Stephen Harder, PhD, research professor, and Galen Kaip, director of the Seismic Source Facility at UTEP, who are providing technical assistance to the researchers.

Also involved in the project are UTEP graduate students Ishay Seldon, Tara Sweeney, and Michelle Luna, and UTEP researchers Stephen Veitch, Ph.D., and Solimar Ayala Cortez, Ph.D. The broader collaborative TIME Project research team outside UTEP includes scientists from the University of California, Santa Cruz, the University of St. Andrews, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Leeds, Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

About the University of Texas at El Paso

The University of Texas at El Paso is America's leading Hispanic-serving university. Located in the westernmost part of Texas, where three states and two counties meet along the Rio Grande, 84% of our 24,000 students are Hispanic, and half are the first in their families to attend college. UTEP offers 171 undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs at America's only open access, top-tier research university.