At the glassy blue waters’ edge of Greenland’s fjords sits the world’s second-largest ice sheet measuring between 6,600 and 9,800 feet thick and covering 660,000 square miles. The ice is contained by coastal mountains and flows outward to the ocean like a jagged mythological creature — both beautiful and unrelenting to what lies in its path.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, the 2022 melt season in Greenland — between April 1 and Oct. 31 — saw the 19th-highest melt rate in a 43-year satellite record.
In the wake of climate change, the annual net loss of ice worldwide is increasing faster rate than the ice sheets are regenerating and advancing. But in observation, sites at the glaciers’ edges in three of Greenland’s fjords vary in behavior. For example, Kangilliup Sermia’s retreat is minor, Umiammakku Sermiat’s retreat is rapid, and Kangerlussuup Sermia is still relatively unaffected. The lack of uniformity in melting poses new questions for scientists. More accurate answers to these questions require a team of experts and a submersible robot to go into uncharted territory beneath the ice.
“The overall climate might say everything’s going to retreat, and eventually it will. But the local details of what’s happening can be much more complicated,” says Sean Gulick, a marine geophysicist at the Jackson School of Geosciences. “(We hypothesize) that the sediment matters … can potentially mitigate climate change for a given ice system (for a while).”
At the Jackson School of Geosciences, UT’s only faculty glaciologist, Ginny Catania, first submitted the research proposal to the W. M. Keck Foundation with colleague Tim Bartholomaus from the University of Idaho in 2017.
The proposal aimed to secure $1.5 million in funding for the expedition, including the acquisition of the submersible remotely operated vehicle, the ship, its crew and the field technicians to operate equipment. The Keck Foundation supports high-risk scientific, engineering and medical research for potentially transformational findings that benefit humanity. Within that budget, the science and interpretation of data will be conducted pro bono.
In December 2022, Catania and Bartholomaus were awarded the Keck funding. “I felt like I had won the Miss America pageant,” Catania says. The money solidified the expedition and set concrete plans into motion.
Catania and Gulick are part of a team of experts at UT, including Benjamin Keisling, John Goff, Marcy Davis and Dan Duncan, studying the morainal banks beneath the glaciers to better understand how sedimental mounts stabilize and insulate the glaciers. Morainal banks may be largely responsible for the rate of melt because they create a buffer system against the warming ocean water. Gulick says that with this information, there may be opportunities to build bigger banks and help mitigate melt rates in the short term.
“The climate system (the ocean and the atmosphere) matters, obviously, to the ice sheets, but the topography, the geometry … has a first-order effect on how the ice is going to respond to climate,” Catania says. “You can think about the climate pushing an ice sheet into a new state, but the topography controls how much change happens.”
In late summer 2024, the team will travel with the crew of a ship called the RV Celtic Explorer and a cohort of engineers, including Davis and Duncan, and technicians who will operate a robot called the Nereid Under Ice (NUI). They will work 24 hours a day in shifts, collecting data with the NUI, designed and engineered at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts under the expertise and supervision of engineer Mike Jakuba.
“This expedition is really exciting. And it’s very high reward, but also very high risk. I mean, we’re going into an environment that no one has really tried to fly a vehicle in before,” Jakuba says.