Investigating the ice

iSTAR teams will go deep field to measure and monitor what’s happening on Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers

Elephant seals investigate the ocean

These seals will carry tiny sensors that will transmit information to the science teams about ocean and environmental conditions

Investigating the oceans

Science teams onboard the RRS James Clark Ross will deploy instruments and technologies to understand what’s happening beneath the ice

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View and download maps of Antarctica and the iSTAR project areas …

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Sheldon Glacier reflected in the glassy waters of Ryder Bay, Adelaide Island, Antarctica. Photo: Pete Bucktrout, British Antarctic Survey.

The science challenge

The science challenge

What’s causing the rapid ice loss from Pine Island Glacier?

It used to be thought that the volume of water flowing into the oceans from melting glaciers and icebergs was equal to the amount of water falling as snow onto the continent; and that this process was keeping the whole system in balance. But some glaciers in the Antarctic (and also in Greenland) are losing ice at a faster rate than they are being replaced. This affects sea level all over the world.

The speed of changes to the West Antarctic ice sheet has taken scientists by surprise. Our ambition is to find out what’s causing the rapid ice loss from Pine Island Glacier in the Amundsen Sea so that we can make more accurate predictions about future sea level rise.  We want to find out if ice loss will carry on increasing at a faster and faster rate, or whether it will slow down or go back to equilibrium.

Our science mission has two distinct aspects:

  • OCEAN-focussed investigations of the Amundsen Sea sector by research teams working onboard RRS James Clark Ross
  • ICE-focussed investigations on Pine Island Glacier, Thwaites Glacier and Union Glacier by research teams working and travelling over the ice by tractor traverse

The iSTAR programme is a suite of four research projects designed to tackle big questions from different scientific perspectives.  Our new knowledge is essential for informing the economic and policy decisions that enable society to live with and adapt to environmental change.

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Ocean2ice: Processes and variability of ocean heat transport toward ice shelves in the Amundsen Sea Embayment (iSTAR A)

Ocean2ice: Processes and variability of ocean heat transport toward ice shelves in the Amundsen Sea Embayment (iSTAR A)

Our science challenge

There is a suggestion that the ocean is providing more heat to melt the underside of the ice than it used to do. Although only a few degrees above freezing, ocean water is warm enough to give up a lot of heat as it washes underneath. At present, no one knows exactly how ocean water gets beneath the glacier but there are a number of possible explanations that we will test.  It may be that the wind forces the water there; it could be waves going round the Antarctic continent; or it may be that the sea floor troughs that were gouged by glaciers thousands of years ago channel water up.

Our research goal

Our aim is to discover how and why warm ocean water gets close to the ice.  Using innovative technologies will make measurements and observations that are essential for improving a wide variety of computer models used by the international scientific community to forecast future climate and sea level. These range from highly sophisticated and complex climate models that try to include the interactions between ice, ocean and atmosphere, to the much simpler models that test our understanding of the physics at play.

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Principal Investigator

Professor Karen Heywood »
University of East Anglia


Project Team



Autosub deployment from RRS James Clark Ross during the JR58 Autosub cruise in 2001. Photo: Mark Brandon, British Antarctic Survey.

Ocean under ice: Ocean circulation and melting beneath the ice shelves of the south-eastern Amundsen Sea (iSTAR B)

Ocean under ice: Ocean circulation and melting beneath the ice shelves of the south-eastern Amundsen Sea (iSTAR B)

Our science challenge

The speed of changes to the West Antarctic ice sheet, where Pine Island Glacier flows into the sea at Pine Island Bay, has taken scientists by surprise. This vast river of ice carries as much water as the River Rhine in frozen form. The last 60 km of the glacier floats on the waters of Pine Island Bay, and the bottom melts so intensely that half of the ice carried in the glacier is lost within the space of 30 years. Pine Island Bay is geographically the far south of the Pacific Ocean, and the image of warmth that this conjures up is not entirely misplaced. The air temperatures rarely rise above freezing, but beneath the cold surface of the sea, water temperatures rise as high as 1 degree Celsius – well above the freezing point.

Our research goal

Our research mission is to understand what “warm” and “rapid” really mean for Pine Island Glacier.  We want to understand what might cause the ocean temperature to change and if it does, by even a small amount, how this will affect the melt-rate change.

To find the answers to those questions we must make measurements of the water temperature beneath the glacier, and simultaneous measurements of the rate at which the base of the glacier is melting into the ocean, but to do so is enormously challenging. The glacier is between 300 m and 1 km thick and difficult to access its base. To achieve our goal we will use cutting-edge technology.

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Principal Investigator

Professor Adrian Jenkins »
British Antarctic Survey


Project Team



BAS-10009192

Dynamic ice: Dynamical control on the response of Pine Island Glacier (iSTAR C)

Dynamic ice: Dynamical control on the response of Pine Island Glacier (iSTAR C)

Our science challenge

Pine Island Glacier is one of five glaciers in West Antarctica that are currently contributing sea-level rise at a significant and accelerating rate. This glacier flows into a vast floating ice shelf in the Amundsen Sea.  This ice shelf is getting thinner and, as a consequence, the glacier is flowing faster into the sea. This thinning effect is now being seen ‘upstream’ on Pine Island Glacier’s trunk and tributaries, but this thinning is not the same everywhere.

Our research goal

We need to understand the processes that are responsible for transmitting the effect of thinning of the floating ice shelf upstream.  We need this knowledge to be able to predict the future magnitudes of ice-thinning rates for the glacier.

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Principal Investigator

Professor David Vaughan »
British Antarctic Survey


Project Team



P1000952

Ice loss: The contribution to sea-level rise of the Amundsen Sea sector of Antarctica (iStar D)

Ice loss: The contribution to sea-level rise of the Amundsen Sea sector of Antarctica (iStar D)

Our science challenge

Prior to the advent of satellites, very little was known about the rates at which ice sheets would respond to climate change.  During the past two decades measurements from successive Earth-orbiting satellites including ERS-1, ERS-2, ENVISAT, GRACE and most recently CryoSat-2, have provided valuable insight about the behaviour of Antarctica’s large ice sheets.

Whilst satellite observations, using a range of technologies, allow us to estimate how much ice is being lost to the ocean, they cannot distinguish changes in ice density from changes in mass; or distinguish changes due to mass ice loss from changes due to the motion of the underlying solid Earth.

Our research goal

To capture ice-based measurements of the Amundsen sector ice streams that will help us reconstruct these ‘missing’ data from the two decades of satellite measurements.  These combined data will help us unravel uncertainties in our projections for the future and provide us with a more comprehensive picture of mass ice loss.  Our ice investigations will focus on the large rivers of ice (ice streams) to determine the recent past and present contribution to sea level of the Amundsen sector drainage basin.  These investigations will run alongside those of our colleagues who are investigating the effect of thinning glaciers and ice sheet movement. (Dynamic ice – iSTAR C).

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Principal Investigator

Professor Andrew Shepherd »
University of Leeds


Project Team




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