NYU receives $2.1 million NSF grant to gauge future sea-level rise

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Credit: Denise Holland

New York University has received a $2.1 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation to better understand the forces behind sea-level rise–a development that has concerned scientists in recent decades because it points to the possibility of global disruptions due to climate change.

The research, centered on the Thwaites Glacier that is part of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet, will be carried by NYU's the Environmental Fluid Dynamics Laboratory and NYU Abu Dhabi's Center for Global Sea Level Change–both directed by David Holland, a professor at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

The grant is part of newly announced $25-million International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), headed by the United Kingdom's Natural Environment Research Council and the National Science Foundation (NSF), which will deploy scientists to gather the data needed to understand whether the glacier's collapse could begin in the next few decades or centuries.

"Rising sea levels are a globally important issue which cannot be tackled by one country alone," says U.K. Science Minister Sam Gyimah. "The Thwaites Glacier already contributes to rising sea levels and understanding its likely collapse in the coming century is vitally important. Science, research, and innovation are at the heart of our Industrial Strategy and this U.K.-U.S. research program will be the biggest field campaign of its type ever mounted by these countries. I'm delighted that our world's leading scientists will help lead this work."

"Satellites show the Thwaites region is changing rapidly, but to answer the key questions of how much and how quickly sea level will change in the future requires scientists on the ground with sophisticated equipment collecting the data we need to measure rates of ice-volume, or ice-mass change," adds William Easterling, assistant director for the National Science Foundation's Geosciences Directorate. "The challenges of conducting fieldwork of this scope and scale in such remote locations are enormous. The only practical way for nations to do this is to work collaboratively, each bringing their resources, both scientific and logistical, to enable complex and comprehensive field studies."

ITGC is the largest joint project undertaken by the two nations in Antarctica since the conclusion of a mapping project on the Antarctic Peninsula in the late 1940's. Holland and oceanographer Keith Nicholls of the British Antarctic Survey will lead the research.

A 2017 estimate suggested that a collapse of the entire the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet would result in a 10-foot-rise in sea level–enough to overwhelm coastal areas around the globe, including New York City.

So far, the Thwaites Glacier, which has already drained a mass of water that is roughly the size of Great Britain or the state of Florida, has accounted for approximately 4 percent of global sea-level rise –an amount that has doubled since the mid-1990s.

Researchers have long known that the answer to comprehending and predicting sea-level rise lies in how ice and oceans interact beneath Antarctic ice shelves. But many unanswered questions about the specifics remain.

"The Thwaites system as a whole is not sufficiently well understood, exposing a significant gap in our knowledge of the particulars of WAIS retreat, the impact of oceans on its vulnerability, and the larger consequences for sea levels," explains Holland.

NYU and NYU Abu Dhabi will provide instrumentation and expertise to support this ground-breaking effort, with the ultimate goal of providing robust, credible projections of sea level change over the present century.

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Holland's team will also include researchers from four other universities: Sridhar Anandakrishnan of Penn State; John Paden of the University of Kansas; Eric Rignot of the University of California, Irvine; and Britney Schmidt of Georgia Tech.

The larger ITGC project will also involve scientists from South Korea, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand, and Finland.

The project is supported by NSF grant No. 1739003.

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James Devitt
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