Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

UA researcher leads team of students through international research study

Courtesy of Rebecca L. Totten

A University of Alabama associate professor of geological sciences is part of a seven-year project dedicated to researching a glacier in Antarctica that has been receding for nearly a hundred years.  

The Thwaites Glacier, nicknamed the Doomsday Glacier, has lost near 14 kilometers, or 8.7 miles, of ice since late 1990, according to the U.S National Science Foundation.  

“New observations determining where the ice enters the ocean show that, while melting beneath much of the ice shelf is weaker than expected, melting in cracks and crevasses is happening much faster,” according to the NSF. 

Rebecca L. Totten is part of a seven-year project called the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration. Totten and her students are working within a team called Thwaites Glacier Offshore Research, or THOR. 

In 2017, THOR drafted a proposal to the NSF seeking funding to research the history of the Thwaites Glacier and why it has been losing ice. 

This project is taking a look into the past by reconstructing the environment so that we can understand the current environment and what the future may have in store,” said Gabi Barnes, a junior geology major. “By understanding the past, we can potentially figure out how to respond to the rapidly changing climate.” 

After the initial proposal, THOR received a $25 million NSF grant, which is set to expire this year. 

Totten said the recession of the Thwaites Glacier is indicative of a broader problem. 

“Right now, we see a lot of ice mass loss, a lot of glaciers releasing ice to the sea, raising sea levels all at the same time,” Totten said.  

There are three main drainage tunnels for the West Antarctic ice sheet of which Thwaites Glacier is a part, and Totten said if one of the tunnels collapses, then the sheet will collapse. 

The West Antarctic ice sheet is a “dynamic ice sheet,” Totten said, due to how the sheet is below sea level, and is thin in comparison to the largest of Antarctica’s glaciers; it is contained in East Antarctica, which sits mostly above sea level. 

According to Yale Climate Connections, sea levels would rise about 25 inches if the Thwaites Glacier entirely melted. 

There have been three expeditions to the glacier, one of which Totten and UA students participated in. In 2019 they collected the cores, or samples from the seafloor, of which colleagues at the University of Houston based a study that was published last month.  

UH looked at the short-term change within the past hundred years and pinpointed exactly when Thwaites Glacier started to retreat to its current position. They believe this trend started in 1930.  

By working with Totten, several UA students have gotten involved in the THOR project, but some have started their own subprojects. 

Colton Bryne, a freshman geology and chemistry major, has worked with Totten and this project for over a year. His research detailing the research-vessel icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer’s sediment core 22-02 KC04 has earned him an award nomination at the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Conference. 

Jacob Helgeson, a senior studying marine sciences and biology, has been working on the project for over two years. He was recruited by Totten to research foraminifera, which are microorganisms that have shells that become ocean floor sediment after death.  

Helgeson now leads a project documenting microscopic algae called diatoms that were living in the seawater during the 2022 expedition to Antarctica, and how populations may be responding to different factors in the ocean and local climate. He has started on his master’s project, which will include several core descriptions of diatom composition. 

“This fascinated me to no end, and I still see the magic in the field to this day,” Helgeson said. “Finding out that only a couple dozen people in the entire world have the ability to identify diatoms confidently piqued my interest as well, and so I also found a challenge in it to get to that level.” 

Barnes has worked with Totten on this project since August 2023. She takes seabed samples and runs them through a machine called a better sizer. She identifies the samples to examine how the past environment may have been, based on the size grains of sand, gravel, clay or silt. Knowing how the past environment worked can help researchers understand how to handle the present environment. 

“Many people’s lives may be affected by what is happening to the Thwaites Glacier right now,” Barnes said. “People that live in areas close to the coasts could be displaced or even lose their lives if this threat is not taken seriously.” 

THOR’s more recent extensive research has led to a unique hypothesis: an El Nino climate event occurring in the 1930s or ’40s may be one cause of the glacier’s receding ice. Researchers noted that another glacier was set back, meaning it started to decline or recede, at the same time as the Thwaites Glacier. 

“It sounds counterintuitive, but that climate phenomenon does affect the ocean,” Totten said. 

El Nino is a naturally occurring climate pattern that can warm ocean surface temperatures and affect how the winds move and how ocean currents are organized. Scientists believe that the warm current around Antarctica, called the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, was shifted by that El Nino and is now affecting the glaciers by melting them from underneath. 

“What we’re seeing right now is that the ice shelves in this area have very rapidly receded. That’s most likely because of this warm ocean water that circles around the continent,” Totten said. “I’m like a paleo detective, so much of what we do is this curiosity driven science where we … try to look at these areas that haven’t been accessed before.” 

More to Discover