Skip navigation

Press Release - Scientist on BBC Frozen Planet investigates how world’s largest glacier is contributing to sea-level rise

Issue date: 05 Dec 2011
Number: 14/2011

A team of scientists from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is to survey the largest glacier in the world — Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica — to understand how ice is being lost and its likely contribution to future sea-level rise.

BAS Glaciologist Dr Andy Smith (centre) with glaciologist Gabby Chevalier (right) and field assistant Ian Hey (left).
BAS Glaciologist Dr Andy Smith (centre) with glaciologist Gabby Chevalier (right) and field assistant Ian Hey (left).
This week a team of four (two scientists and two support staff) embarked from BAS Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula to their remote field site on Pine Island Glacier in Western Antarctica (over 800 miles away) where they will spend 12 weeks living in tents.

Pine Island Glacier is of great interest to scientists worldwide as it has been thinning at a rate of more than 1 m/year and its flow rate has accelerated over the past 15 years. The current big research effort to look at the glacier’s contribution to sea-level rise began only a decade ago. The scientific techniques used to study other glaciers were filmed by the Frozen Planet team for episode 7 — On Thin Ice — which broadcasts this Wednesday 7 December.

The team will use a number of techniques including GPS (global positioning systems) and seismic measurements to map the conditions beneath the ice and improve our understanding of what allows this massive river of ice to flow at more than two miles per year.

BAS glaciologist Dr Andy Smith who is leading the mission to Pine Island Glacier says, “Loss of ice from Pine Island Glacier could be a major contributor to global sea level rise in the future. What we are trying to determine is what this contribution is likely to be and over what timescale.”

Glaciology field camp on Pine Island Glacier, West Antarctica.
Glaciology field camp on Pine Island Glacier, West Antarctica.
Pine Island Glacier is known as the weak ‘underbelly’ of the Antarctic because a relatively small ice shelf (a floating platform of ice that forms where a glacier or ice sheet flows down to the ocean surface) is holding back ice in a huge basin (larger than the size of England*) and keeping it from flowing into the ocean. The ice shelf acts as a ‘plug’ holding the glacier in place on land.

Dr Smith flew with the Frozen Planet team up the Antarctic Peninsula in January 2010 to witness the disintegrating of part of the Wilkins Ice shelf — the size of Yorkshire or Jamaica* — and to film its dramatic break up.

The crew captured footage of giant icebergs — some over 1-mile in diameter. Smith says, “Now that’s remarkable — the edge of the ice shelf has disintegrated. It’s almost like a slow-motion explosion.”

In the programme Smith and the crew land on part of an ice bridge to erect a satellite transmitter that will record the processes involved when the remainder of the ice-shelf collapses.

The last in the Frozen Planet series, On Thin Ice explores how the Polar Regions are being affected by climate change. David Attenborough scripted and presented the programme. On Thin Ice is broadcast on Wednesday 7 December at 9.00pm on BBC 1, repeated on Sunday 11 December at 4.10pm.

ENDS

Issued by British Antarctic Survey

British Antarctic Survey media contact:

Athena Dinar, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221414; Mobile: +44 07736 921693; email: amdi@bas.ac.uk
Audrey Stevens, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221230; email: auev@bas.ac.uk

BBC contact:

Beth Regan, Publicist BBC Knowledge, Tel. 0117 974 2319; Mobile: 07711194247 beth.regan@bbc.co.uk (I work Wednesday, Thursday, Fridays. On Mondays and Tuesdays please send all emails to my jobshare lindsay.smith@bbc.co.uk or call her on Tel. 0117 9742322

Notes for Editors

Ice shelf
thick, floating platform of ice that forms where a glacier or ice sheet flows down to a coastline and onto the ocean surface Glacier — a mass of ice that moves over land

*The Wilkins Ice Shelf was approx 16,000km². Since its break up the remainder is now 11,000km². Yorkshire is approx 16,000km².

*Pine Island Glacier and its basin has an area of is approx 176,000km². The land mass of England is 130,395km².

Pine Island Glacier is of great interest to scientists worldwide as it has been thinning at a rate of more than 1 m/year and its flow rate has accelerated over the past 15 years. The location at which the glacier starts to float on the sea also retreated at a rate of more than 1 km/year during part of this period. Furthermore, the wider region within which Pine Island Glacier lies is the most rapidly changing portion of the Antarctic ice sheet and its future impact on sea-level rise could be very significant.

Access to the Polar Regions, especially the Antarctic is a real challenge. British Antarctic Survey contributed its regional knowledge, science expertise and logistics to help facilitate BBC crew visits to its Rothera and Bird Island Research Stations in 2010. With help from the scientists on the ground, the series delves into the behaviour of penguins, seals and albatrosses on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia and later heads to a recently collapsed ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula with glaciologist Dr Andy Smith.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS), a component of the Natural Environment Research Council, delivers world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions. Its skilled science and support staff based in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic, work together to deliver research that underpins a productive economy and contributes to a sustainable world. Its numerous national and international collaborations, leadership role in Antarctic affairs and excellent infrastructure help ensure that the UK maintains a world leading position. BAS has over 450 staff and operates five research stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft in and around Antarctica. www.antarctica.ac.uk

Frozen Planet — On Thin Ice — BBC1 — Wednesday 7 December David Attenborough journeys to both Polar Regions to investigate what rising temperatures will mean for the people and wildlife that live there and for the rest of the planet.

David starts out at the North Pole, standing on sea ice several metres thick, but which scientists predict could be open ocean within the next few decades. The Arctic has been warming at twice the global average, so David heads out with a Norwegian team to see what this means for polar bears. He comes face-to-face with a tranquilised female, and discovers that mothers and cubs are going hungry as the sea ice on which they hunt disappears. In Canada, Inuit hunters have seen with their own eyes what scientists have seen from space; the Arctic Ocean has lost 30% of its summer ice cover over the last 30 years. For some, the melting sea ice will allow access to trillions of dollars worth of oil, gas and minerals. For the rest of us, it means the planet will get warmer, as sea ice is important to reflect back the sun’s energy. Next David travels to see what’s happening to the ice on land: in Greenland, we follow intrepid ice scientists as they study giant waterfalls of melt water, which are accelerating iceberg calving events, and ultimately leading to a rise in global sea level.

Temperatures have also risen in the Antarctic — David returns to glaciers photographed by the Shackleton expedition and reveals a dramatic retreat over the past century. It’s not just the ice that is changing — ice-loving Adélie penguins are disappearing, and more temperate gentoo penguins are moving in. Finally, we see the first ever images of the largest recent natural event on our planet — the break-up of the Wilkins Ice Shelf, an ice sheet the size of Jamaica, which shattered into hundreds of icebergs in 2009.