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Vermont Quarterly

Answers in the Ice

Scientist charts a glacier’s fall and the seas’ rise

Ian Joughin


Answers in the Ice

Scientist charts a glacier’s fall and the seas’ rise

By Joshua Brown

Last May, The New York Times reported that two independent teams of scientists had come to the same conclusion: the ice sheet covering western Antarctica is beginning to collapse due to global warming—and its continued melting appears to be unstoppable. Having ten feet of sea-level rise baked-in to the future of human civilization was major news for the day, and, surely, is major news for human civilization.

The lead scientist of one of these teams is Ian Joughin ’86 G’90—who received two degrees from UVM in electrical engineering. He’s now senior principal engineer at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory and a glaciologist at the lab’s Polar Science Center. Including this new study, Joughin has had more than ten papers in the journal Science. He’s been to Antarctica and Greenland many times. Big-time polar research—and the media attention that comes with it—are familiar water for him.  Still, this report opened a flood.

“I'm sitting in the parking lot, talking to one reporter after another, including those guys from The New York Times and Skyping with the BBC,” Joughin says, laughing in recollection, over a cup of coffee at Uncommon Grounds in Burlington. “I've done a lot of press stuff, but I’ve not had to write down a list of ten reporters that I had to get back to. That was pretty crazy.”

But his science is sober. Using airborne radar, satellite data, topographic maps, and computer models, he and his team confirmed what some scientists have feared since the 1970s: that the Thwaites glacier, which drains an area about the size of North Dakota into the Amundsen Sea, has begun to collapse. In recent decades, an influx of warm seawater has begun to seep under the glacier. It’s melting away the ice that has anchored the glacier to a raised ridge on the seafloor. As this attachment point, where the glacier meets the land, retreats into a deep basin, an ever-expanding amount of the underside of the glacier will be exposed to warm seawater, the upper face of the ice will become less stable—and the fluid glacier will flow faster. Think of Thwaites as a plug: pull it out and all of the ice sheet behind may spill into the sea too. “There will be no anchor spot,” Joughin explains. “So for West Antarctica the next stable state will be no ice sheet.”

How fast that happens is up to us. Joughin’s simulations suggest that this could happen in as fast as two hundred years or as slow as nine hundred years. “It depends on how we manage our energy systems,” he says. “Even if it's inevitable, the important point is how fast the collapse is going to happen.”

 “Collapse is a funny word,” he says. “Some think of a building collapse—but people don't blink if you say the collapse of the Roman Empire—and that happened over eight hundred years.” A millennium is a long time for humanity to adapt to rising seas, whereas “if this happens in two hundred years, that would be five feet per century. That's six inches per decade—a much bigger problem,” Joughin says. “In our lifetime, cities would begin to be inundated.”

So how does a farm kid from Richford, Vermont, who trained as an electrical engineer become an expert on glaciers and satellite observation of ice sheets? Joughin credits his success as a polar scientist to his training as an engineer.  “UVM prepared me really well because in engineering you learn about systems and how they work,” he says. “Basically, a glacier is a big system.” 

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