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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Journey to a Melting Glacier in Antarctica

Air Date: Week of

Thwaites glacier surrounded by sea ice. (Photo: Elizabeth Rush)

Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica holds enough ice that its melting could raise sea levels worldwide by 2 feet, but it’s so remote that until recently no one had ever approached where it meets the sea. Elizabeth Rush was a writer-in-residence on board the first research icebreaker to visit Thwaites and she chronicles the journey in her new book The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth. She joined Living on Earth Host Steve Curwood to share the experience of witnessing the glacier’s unraveling and the crucial data the scientists on board unearthed.


DOERING: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jenni Doering.

O’NEILL: And I’m Aynsley O’Neill.

The so-called “Doomsday” glacier in Antarctica known as Thwaites holds enough ice that its melting could raise sea levels worldwide by 2 feet. And seas could rise 10 feet or more if the loss of Thwaites destabilizes the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet that it’s holding back. But because the climate is entering uncharted territory in human history, most climate models don’t account for that amount of sea level rise. So to help fill the data gap, in 2019 a few dozen scientists and crew made the long and stormy journey to Thwaites. Also on board their ship were a couple of journalists and the expedition’s writer-in-residence Elizabeth Rush. Her 2023 book The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth chronicles the two-month expedition. But The Quickening also weaves in Elizabeth’s personal story of another epic journey.

RUSH: The amount of paperwork you have to do to go to Antarctica is like astronomical, and I can still remember getting this sort of like huge packet in the mail and reading one sort of line in it that said, pelvic exam. And it turns out that pregnant people aren’t allowed to deploy to the ice. I had really wanted to start trying to get pregnant around this time.

O’NEILL: And putting that off would mean Elizabeth would be 35 when she could finally start trying for a baby, right on the edge of the supposed “fertility cliff,” though she points out that’s somewhat of a myth. But the ice was calling, and she sensed it had a story to tell about what was happening to our rapidly changing planet, the very world she hoped to someday bring a child into. Elizabeth Rush recently joined Host Steve Curwood to talk about the journey to Antarctica and what it revealed.

The cover of The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth. (Image: Courtesy of Elizabeth Rush)

CURWOOD: The subtitle of your book calls this the "Ends of the Earth," Antarctica. And you have a pretty strong telling of how difficult it is to get to the Thwaites Glacier. Talk to me a bit about the geography of this place and what makes it so doggone difficult to get to.

RUSH: Oh gosh, I remember when I accepted the invitation from the National Science Foundation, my program officer said to me, "You know, it's going to be easier for us to get help to folks at the space station than it will be for us to get help to you guys when you finally reached Thwaites. Are you sure you still want to go?" And I was like, "Yeah, of course I want to go!" And [LAUGHS] I really had no idea how far away this place would be. It literally took us a month to arrive. We were on an icebreaker called the Nathaniel B. Palmer that set sail from Punta Arenas in Chile. And the Palmer's about the length of a football field, so you can walk it from end to end in under a minute. From southern Chile, we sailed out the Strait of Magellan, and then started to cross the Drake's Passage, which is considered the wildest, most predictably wild ocean in the world. Basically, it's kind of the choke point between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula. And so all of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current that swirls around Antarctica gets squeezed right there. And so you tend to get really heavy high seas and big storms. Our crossing was pretty eventful. We had regular sort of 25-foot swell. At one point, you know, like, a gigantic refrigerator in the lab became untethered from the ship and, like, slammed across the lab. And we had to, like, strap it back down. Most people got really horribly ill during our crossing. And then you get across the Drake's Passage, and then suddenly, you're in iceberg territory. Our ship, an icebreaker, is made to ride up on top of ice floe, which is relatively flat sea ice, and then it kind of causes the ice floe to crack beneath it. It's not made to like run into an iceberg. So then we had to cross a bunch of big sea ice fields for days. And right when we first arrived at Thwaites, we then had a medical emergency on board that caused us to have to reroute to Rothera Base for 10 days, and then come back. So it did take us a month to arrive, which was wild.

An iceberg drifting in the ocean as the Nathaniel B. Palmer makes its way to Thwaites glacier. (Photo: Elizabeth Rush)

CURWOOD: So given how difficult it is to get an expedition down to this part of the world, why were so many scientists keen to go there -- and writers, too?

RUSH: Thwaites really is considered ground zero for the possibility of accelerated sea level rise this century. And yet, I mean, no one in Earth's history before us had ever been to the place where the glacier discharges ice into the sea. So we don't know basic, basic things like, how warm is the water circulating beneath Thwaites? How strong are the currents pushing that water under the ice? So the reason Antarctica, and in particular, West Antarctic glaciers are so vulnerable to our changing climate is not because they're melting because of atmospheric warming. They're melting because there's this warm water that's circulating beneath them, eating away at the ice from below and causing it to become physically unstable, which just has the potential to give you a rate of retreat and collapse that outpaces significantly glacial retreat, as we normally think of it, where you have kind of atmospheric warming above causing the ice to melt. Thwaites is sort of like a house of cards. And we're concerned as we lose some of the base, or the underside of the glacier, you're taking cards out of that house, and you could cause it to become so unstable that the whole thing falls apart really quickly. And I think one last kind of nerdy thing that's useful to know is that, you know, we know from studying different geologic records that in Earth's history, let's say like 15,000 years ago, roughly, there were rapid pulses of water into the ocean that caused sea levels to rise 50 feet over a couple hundred years. These events are called meltwater pulse 1A and 1B. And the supposition is that a significant portion of the ice that's causing that rapid, accelerated sea level rise is coming from Antarctica. But no human beings have ever lived through or recorded those events. Like, we know that they happened, but we don't really know what caused them. We don't know the drivers or the mechanisms behind that change. And so I think in the scientific community, at this deep level, there's a question, like, if we lose Thwaites, are we in the meltwater pulse 1A territory? Are we thinking about a rapid acceleration of sea level rise that's not really in our models -- yet.

Thick ice floes often slowed the icebreaker’s progress. (Photo: Elizabeth Rush)

CURWOOD: Liz, take me to the moment that you first set eyes on Thwaites, it's in your book on page 200. Please set it up first.

RUSH: Yeah, so this is just a short passage that's really about the morning of our arrival. And it starts, I guess, a few hours before we arrive. And I remember this evening really well, and I remember almost feeling like a kid on Christmas. You know, when you wake up and you're like, Is it Christmas yet? And you're like, No, it's 11:15 at night, Okay, I gotta go back to bed. And then you wake up two hours later, and you're like, Is it Christmas yet? And you're like, okay, it's 1:12, and then you go back to bed. That was what this night was like for me. [READING] That night, sound sleep eludes me. I wake often, each time hopeful that we have arrived. Finally, around five o'clock I rise, shuffle up the four flights of stairs, undog the door by the ice tower and walk out onto the bridge wings. Thwaites' gray margin wobbles in the gloaming. We wind alongside, entering small coves and rounding odd promontories, our pace slow to hold this precarious line. The ice face soft as dunes. The night's new hint of darkness gives way to the bruised light of dawn, and many others appear to watch what each of us has been working towards, for weeks, for years, and in some cases, for decades, come into sharp focus. We don't talk. When someone wants to say something they whisper, as though we're in a giant, roofless cathedral. We, who have been at sea for so long, finally gaze upon the glacier that has already given us one another. Rick, the chief mate, stands attentive at the ship's helm, the captain next to him, steering us along the edges of Thwaites' unfathomable fracturing, its hemorrhaging heart of milk.

Penguins on an ice slab near Antarctica (Photo: Elizabeth Rush)

CURWOOD: Then soon, after navigating through previously unnavigable waters, there's a huge collapse of ice and you're witness to a radical and rapid change that happened almost just before your eyes. Tell me about that.

RUSH: Yeah, so we worked probably for about six days nonstop. When you're on one of these scientific missions, once you get to your field site, there's no off switch, the ship is really just cranking on all cylinders at all times. So we were doing science 24 hours a day for like six days nonstop. And then, suddenly, there were more icebergs in the bay; suddenly, the waters became a lot less easy to navigate. And everyone was sort of wondering what had happened or what had changed. And it turns out that, you know, a piece of Thwaites like 25 miles wide and 15 miles deep had literally broken apart alongside us and was basically discharging these massive icebergs into the very bay that we were sailing in. And I can remember seeing these, we got these aerial satellite images of our study area. And indeed it looked, you know, this ice shelf was solid one day and the next day it looked sort of like a belligerent teenager had, like, taken a baseball bat to a car windshield and shattered it into hundreds of pieces. And I saw those and I literally just ran up to the top deck to try to see this process unfolding right in front of me. And I stood up there for hours. And on the one hand, part of me when I saw that was like, "This is why we're here, right? Like, man, we're getting, like, we are really getting the right data right now. This will be really useful”. And then that's coupled with a, you know, a deep sense of, “what I wouldn't give for none of this to be happening. What I wouldn't give for this to not be falling apart in front of me." And the bizarre thing was that it was actually like the most, one of the most beautiful days of our expedition. The sun had finally come out, the air was, like, crisp and cold. And all of a sudden, there were these like lavender-faceted icebergs in the bay, and I could only see them as icebergs, I could only see them, you know, for the first time, not, not a sign of significant change. So I stood up there for many hours and kind of tried to witness what was happening. And I felt like I always fell a little short of being able to, to actually perceive it.

As the Palmer made its way along Antarctica’s frozen, rocky edge, penguins and other wildlife came into view. (Photo: Elizabeth Rush)

CURWOOD: So of course, this was a journey for you, Liz, in understanding life, motherhood, our place on the planet. And for the scientists, there was a lot of data for them to gather. What were the big scientific takeaways from this expedition, do you think, to Thwaites?

RUSH: Well, I think of a couple. One of the most significant things that we were able to accomplish when we were at Thwaites is that we sent a submarine beneath the ice shelf. And that submarine was able to give us some really important information about the temperature of the water circulating beneath Thwaites. The most significant finding there was that the water beneath Thwaites is actually a little bit cooler than scientists had calculated. And I think folks tend to want to celebrate that, it's like, "oh, the water's cooler, that's so great!" But just because the water is cooler, doesn't mean that the glacier is moving any less quickly. In fact, the glacier's deteriorating at the same rate, and its water that's not as warm that's causing that deterioration. So in many ways, this proves that the ice shelf itself is actually more physically vulnerable than we had been calculating. The other really significant findings from that submarine was that it also drew very close to the seafloor and created these incredibly detailed sonar images of the seafloor. And from them, one of the sedimentologists on board was basically able to reconstruct the retreat of Thwaites during a really significant event that happened sometime in the last two centuries. He basically kind of read the ridges on the seafloor. Through that information, he was able to calculate a maximum rate of retreat for Thwaites that is two to three times faster than we had previously calculated.

After a month of travel through stormy seas, thick sea ice and iceberg territory, the Palmer finally arrived at its destination, Thwaites glacier. (Photo: Elizabeth Rush)

CURWOOD: Before you go Liz, talk to me about the strong thread of community that's, that's in your book. You have scientists and crew working around the clock, cooking, measuring, fixing, surviving, I guess, a nail-biting medevac. I mean, that, can't tell the whole story here. But that was quite a, it took, A, a lot of time and B, it was rather harrowing.

RUSH: Yeah.

CURWOOD: Later on, we feel that you're surrounded by support as you bring your son into this world. How did you witness community on the ship? And how does that influence how you see this world working together on the climate dilemma?

Fractures permeate Thwaites’ edge, soon to calve new icebergs. (Photo: Elizabeth Rush)

RUSH: You know, so we were, there were 57 of us on board this boat. And we came from all over the planet. We're from the Philippines, from Brazil, from Sweden, from the US. And we had this seemingly sort of impossible task, which was gathering information about this place that no one has ever been able to even reach before. And that we were able to do that, sort of, while existing inside of one of the most, you know, extreme environments on the planet, to me, was an absolute testament of what is possible when you work together with other human beings. In the climate conversation, it seems to me like there's been a bit of a shift in the past couple years, away from the kind of blame game narrative where you're an individual consumer and your decisions about organic or non-organic tomatoes, and cardboard packaging and plastic packaging is really where your, your impact on the climate crisis is going to be most profoundly felt. It seems to me like we're moving away from that, towards this idea that real climate action is going to be collectively achieved. But I don't think we have a lot of good stories that do justice to the ways that communities come together and are formed around shared concerns.

Elizabeth Rush is the author of The Quickening and Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She teaches at Brown University. (Photo: Stephanie Ewens)

And so one of my goals in writing this book was really to try to create a narrative that is not just about my singular expedition, but more about this community and the way they came together. So the book also has a pretty unconventional format in that, I don't know, about 50% of it is narrated in my first person, but my first person is regularly interrupted by the voices of my shipmates, and they're talking about their experiences on board. So if you were to flip open The Quickening, it kind of looks like a screenplay half the time. And I think it's important to know that what they say is, like, literally what they said on the boat. So I conducted 213 interviews while on board, and I hand-transcribed them all to create the archive that would, like, build the backbone of this story. And so it's my hope, really, that the book can be sort of like an experiment in storytelling that highlights collective labor. And it definitely, I mean, it definitely made me come home and think about how often I feel powerless in the face of the scale of the climate crisis. But when I feel that, I realize I have tools for combating that kind of desperation. And so for me, that's meant becoming much more involved in community organizing around just climate adaptation in Rhode Island. Any kind of collective climate action beyond the individual, I think, is, is where our power really resides.

O’NEILL: That’s Elizabeth Rush, Professor at Brown University and author of The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth speaking with Living on Earth Host Steve Curwood.



Find a copy of The Quickening (Affiliate link helps donate to LOE and local indie bookstores)

About author Elizabeth Rush

Learn more about scientific research on Thwaites Glacier

Listen to LOE’s interview with Elizabeth Rush about her previous book Rising


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