To look forward, we need to look back. Evidence from Earth’s past offers a glimpse into our future. In the last interglacial period, ~125,000 years ago, global temperatures were 1°C (1.8°F) warmer than pre-industrial times, similar to what we will see if carbon emissions targets, outlined in the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, are met.
While it’s not yet clear how much the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets melted, global sea level may have been 6–9 metres (20–30 feet) higher due to ice melt. Recent studies of the Greenland Ice Sheet suggest most of the meltwater came from Antarctica, but direct evidence is missing.
SWAIS2C aims to answer the key question ‘Does the Paris climate target save the Ross Ice Shelf and limit Antarctic Ice Sheet melt’? To answer this question, we need geological records from the centre of West Antarctica. This will help scientists better project the amount of sea-level rise in our warming climate.
Researchers, engineers, and drillers in the SWAIS2C Team will recover key environmental information from the ice and sediment at two different sites on the Ross Ice Shelf. No one has ever drilled deep into the Antarctic seabed at a location so far from a major base and so close to the centre of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. At Kamb Ice Stream, we will drill through a slab of floating ice nearly 600 metres (1,970 feet) thick. Underneath this ice is sea, but we will keep on drilling until we reach the seafloor to see what the sediment we find there can tell us. At the second site, Crary Ice Rise, the ice sits directly on the seafloor and is more than 500 metres (1,640 feet) thick. Here we will drill through both ice and the Antarctic continent itself to recover sediment cores. Drilling at these different sites allows us to compare how the ice shelf behaves in different temperatures.
The resulting geological records will help reveal how sensitive the Ross Ice Shelf and West Antarctic Ice Sheet are to past warming similar to the 1.5 to 2°C (2.7° to 3.5°F) target set in the Paris Agreement.
We know we must adapt to at least 30 cm (12 inches) of sea level rise over the coming decades, but we must also plan for a range of possible futures with the potential for significantly higher values. SWAIS2C researchers and the drilling machines will help us ‘see’ those possible futures. Dr Molly PattersonCo-Chief Scientist
Aims and objectives
This project aims to:
- Determine whether the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has advanced and retreated during the Holocene. This was a period of relatively stable climate that has characterised the last 10,000 years prior to the industrial revolution and the onset of the Anthropocene.
- Determine how marine-based ice sheets respond to a world that is 1.5°–2°C and >2°C warmer than pre-industrial times.
- Understand the local, regional, and global impacts and consequences of the response of the Antarctic Ice Sheet to this warming.