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Central Washington University

CWU Researcher Receives National Science Foundation Grant for Antarctica Ice Study

Friday, September 11, 2020

Winberry in AntarcticaCentral Washington University geological sciences researcher Paul Winberry has received a two-year, $174,379 National Science Foundation grant to continue his work in the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The basin, which is significantly larger than Washington state, is considered to be in a state of ice-sheet instability due to warm water intrusion.

“Right now, the Wilkes Basin is not losing a great deal of ice,” said Winberry, who has been studying the basin for nearly 20 years. “But what we know, from looking at geologic records from hundreds of thousands and millions of years ago—when the earth was much warmer than it is now—this part of Antarctica appears to have lost a lot of its ice.”

A geophysicist, Winberry is interested in the physical mechanisms that allow glaciers and ice sheets to flow, as well as the tectonic influences on the flow of ice sheets and glaciers.

If all of the ice in that particular basin were to instantaneously melt, sea levels around the world would rise by several feet. Such a catastrophic event is extremely unlikely. But Winberry is attempting to determine how much melt is likely in the Wilkes Basin over a specific time period to help forecast potential sea-level rise.

“We know if we warm the planet by a few degrees, we’re going to lose a lot of ice and raise sea levels,” he added. “One of the things we’re really interested in is how fast a glacier can grow—or shrink.”

Research has shown that the loss of glacier ice doesn’t only happen from melting on top, but also from ice warming miles below the surface where it can come into contact with the oceans. That melting ice combines with dirt and mud on top of the warmer bedrock—which is below sea level—causing chunks of the glacier to slide into the ocean.

“Ninety percent of the excess heat that we’re putting into the planet is actually absorbed by the oceans,” Winberry noted. “We really should be calling ‘global warming,’ ‘ocean warming’ because the glacier is melting from the bottom where it’s touching the ocean.”

CWU undergraduates will participate in Winberry’s research, analyzing and interpreting some of the previously collected field data to determine where the glacier is most likely to slide. In past years, Central students have also accompanied him to Antarctica to conduct fieldwork.

The new research is being conducted along with colleagues from the University of Alabama, University of Texas, and University of Alaska.  

Media contact: Robert Lowery, Public Affairs, 509-899-0235, Robert.Lowery@cwu.edu

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