What recipes produce a habitable planet?

Cross-disciplinary team will track life-essential elements during planets’ early evolution

NASA’s interdisciplinary Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) project has awarded Rice University $7.7 million for a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional research program aimed at finding many different recipes nature might follow to produce rocky planets capable of supporting life.

As any cook knows, it takes the right recipe and getting the right ingredients to make a tasty dish, and the same principle applies to habitable rocky planets, said Rice Earth and planetary scientist Rajdeep Dasgupta, the principal investigator on NASA NExSS’s CLEVER Planets research program.“A recipe for life as we know it requires essential elements like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, phosphorous and sulfur,” said Dasgupta, professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice. “But the first billion years of a rocky planet’s life are turbulent. On Earth, that period was marked by enormous change, not only at the surface but inside the planet as well. For planetary habitability, life-essential elements must survive that period in a bioavailable form.”

“We have the expertise to trace life-essential elements through the first billion-year journey from protoplanetary disks to prebiotic molecules on the surface of young worlds,” Dasgupta said. “Some of the processes that are central to this — the ones happening inside the planet and the feedbacks that link interior processes with those on the surface — are largely unexplored in the context of exoplanets.”

He said the research will be guided by knowledge from the solar system’s rocky planets — Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars — and other objects, but CLEVER Planets’ goal is to extend knowledge to rocky worlds orbiting distant stars.

“We know more about our own solar system than any other,” Dasgupta said. “That’s very useful for comparative planetology, but the focus of our search is beyond our own backyard. We want to construct and constrain as many possible pathways to rocky planet habitability as we can.”

The Rice University-based CLEVER Planets project is exploring what happens to life-essential elements in a rocky planet’s formative years. Rice faculty investigators on the five-year, NASA-funded project include (counterclockwise from left) Andrea Isella, Rajdeep Dasgupta, Laurence Yeung, Cin-Ty Lee, Pedram Hassanzadeh and Adrian Lenardic. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

The Rice University-based CLEVER Planets project is exploring what happens to life-essential elements in a rocky planet’s formative years. Rice faculty investigators on the five-year, NASA-funded project include (counterclockwise from left) Andrea Isella, Rajdeep Dasgupta, Laurence Yeung, Cin-Ty Lee, Pedram Hassanzadeh and Adrian Lenardic. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Co-investigators on the five-year grant include Cin-Ty Lee, professor and chair of the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Science at Rice; Adrian Lenardic, professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice; Laurence Yeung, assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice; Pedram Hassanzadeh, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice; Andrea Isella, assistant professor of physics and astronomy and of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice; Tom McCollomof the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics; Hilke Schlichting, associate professor of Earth, planetary and space sciences at UCLA; Sarah Stewart, professor of Earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Davis; Aaron Burton, planetary scientist in the NASA Johnson Space Center’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division; and Francis McCubbin, astromaterials curator in the NASA Johnson Space Center’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division. The CLEVER Planets team also includes collaborators Christopher Johns-Krull and David Alexander, both professors of physics and astronomy at Rice.

The Rice-led team was selected from a competition in response to the NASA Astrobiology Institute Cycle 8 Cooperative Agreement, and funding was awarded by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate as part of the agency’s interdisciplinary NExSS Project. NExSS is a NASA research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability. The goals of NExSS are to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology and climate interact to create the conditions for life.

planet

An artist’s conception of planet Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world found in the habitable zone around a distant sun-like star. (Image courtesy of NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

Pedram Hassanzadeh named Gulf Research Program Early-Career Research Fellow

– AUGUST 29, 2018

Adrienne Correa, assistant professor of biosciences at Rice, and Pedram Hassanzadeh, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences, received 2018 Early-Career Research Fellowships from the Gulf Research Program, part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The fellowships support emerging scientific leaders as they take risks on untested research ideas, pursue unique collaborations and build a network of colleagues who share their interest in improving not only offshore energy system safety, but also the well-being of coastal communities and ecosystems.

“Because the early years of a researcher’s career are a critical time, the relatively unrestricted funds and mentoring this fellowship provides help recipients navigate this period with independence, flexibility and a built-in support network,” according to the Gulf Research Program.

Adrienne Correa

Adrienne Correa

Correa, a marine biologist, studies how marine microbial communities influence the health and function of marine animals and ecosystems, particularly when human activities alter temperature, nutrient availability and other conditions in coastal environments.

For three years, Correa has helped advise management of coral reefs in the northwest Gulf of Mexico through her research seat on the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council. She is currently leading a team of scientists tracking low-salinity water masses, associated microbial communities and measures of coral health in the Gulf of Mexico to develop a predictive framework for assessing whether particular storm events are likely to harm reefs.

Most recently, Correa discovered that depth makes a big difference in the biological erosion that can lead reefs to either grow or shrink. She and her team were able to quantify how barnacles infest stony coral in a variety of conditions and potentially reduce calcium carbonate on reefs.

Pedram Hassanzadeh

Pedram Hassanzadeh

Hassanzadeh, an expert in environmental fluid dynamics, is interested in large-scale turbulent flows, such as those in the atmosphere. He uses computational, mathematical and statistical modeling to study atmospheric flows related to a broad range of issues, from extreme weather events to wind energy.

His research group is examining why Hurricane Harvey moved so slowly and whether a large-scale weather pattern played a role. The group is also exploring ways to improve the accuracy of NASA’s weather forecast model, searching for a better understanding of atmospheric turbulence and studying data-driven modeling of environmental flows.

Hassanzadeh’s group is also using deep learning to identify and predict extreme weather events. Hassanzadeh will use the fellowship to advance work on determining if more Harvey-style hurricanes are likely in the Gulf region in the future.

The fellowships include a two-year grant of $76,000, which provides funding for research-related expenses such as equipment purchases, professional travel, development courses, trainee support and salary.

The Gulf Research Program is an independent, science-based program founded in 2013 as part of legal settlements with companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Its purpose is to enhance offshore energy system safety and protect human health and the environment. The program funds grants, fellowships and other activities.

Kilauea eruption an opportunity for undersea scrutiny

 

Video by Rice Professor Julia Morgan, taken from a helicopter on July 16, shows lava from the ongoing eruption of Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii as it moves from the volcano to the sea. Morgan and her colleagues spent a week placing ocean-bottom seismic instruments off the southeastern shore of the island.

Lava flows from a volcanic rift on the Big Island of Hawaii on July 16, as photographed from a helicopter by Rice University Professor Julia Morgan. Rice researchers worked with a team to set seismic instruments on the sea floor that will help analyze earthquakes and aftershocks associated with the ongoing eruption of Kilauea. Photo by Julia Morgan

Rice researchers help deliver seismometers to analyze Hawaiian volcano, quakes

By Mike Williams

Rice University researchers joined a team of scientists placing seismometers under the ocean off the coast of Hawaii, where the ongoing eruption of Kilauea has already claimed more than 700 homes and added to the island’s landmass. The researchers hope for new insight about the landscape under the ocean floor.

Julia Morgan, a professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences, and student David Blank were awarded a National Science Foundation RAPID grant to join a team of researchers and seed the seafloor with a dozen seismic detectors off the southeastern coast of the island in the wake of the 6.9 magnitude earthquake that occurred at the start of the eruption of Kilauea May 4.

The instruments will gather data until September, when they will be retrieved, and are expected to provide an extensive record of earthquakes and aftershocks associated with the eruption of the world’s most active volcano over two months.

Rice University graduate student David Blank and geophysicist Julia Morgan.

“They’re still going on,” said Morgan, who returned to Houston last week after seven days aboard a vessel deployed to place instruments and map the area. “In addition, a bunch of earthquakes occurred in other portions of the (island) flank. That’s what really got my attention.”

Her interest in geologic structures, particularly relating to volcano deformation and faulting, led her to study the ocean bed off the Big Island’s coast for years. In a 2003 paper, Morgan and her colleagues used marine seismic reflection data to look inside Kilauea’s underwater slope for the boundaries of an active landslide, the Hilina Slump, as well as signs of previous avalanches.

The researchers determined that the Hilina Slump is restricted to the upper slopes of the volcano, and the lower slopes consist of a large pile of ancient avalanche debris that was pushed by Kilauea’s sliding, gravity-driven flank into a massive, mile-high bench about 15 miles offshore. This outer bench currently buttresses the Hilina Slump, preventing it from breaking away from the volcano slopes.

“We mapped out the geometry and extent of the slump and tried to develop a history of how it came to be,” she said of the paper.

“Essentially, Kilauea is a bulldozer sliding out on the ocean crust and scraping off packages of strata that have accumulated,” Morgan said. The Hilina Slump rides on top of the sliding flank, she said.

A cutaway view through Kīlauea’s south flank looking north showing subsurface structures, including the Hilina Slump (pink), ponding sediment (green) and the outer bench (blue) on the ocean bottom that holds the slump in place. Click on the image for a larger version. Source: “Instability of Hawaiian Volcanoes” by Roger Denlinger and Julia Morgan/U.S. Geological Survey

“Remarkably, after this earthquake, all the boundaries of the slump also lit up with small earthquakes. These clearly occurred on a different fault than the main earthquake, suggesting that the slump crept downslope during or after that event,” she said.

Morgan said the bench appears to be stable, presumably supporting the slump — although if it collapsed, the slump would follow and the results could be catastrophic. “If the slump were to fail catastrophically, it would create an amazing tsunami that would hit the West Coast. We have not seen this in historic times,” she said.

Blank poses with the last of 12 ocean-bottom seismometers to be placed off the southeastern shore of the Big Island of Hawaii in July. The seismic instruments are expected to capture information for the next two months about ongoing earthquakes and aftershocks associated with the eruption of Kilauea. Photo courtesy of David Blank

“The frequency of these failures is very low and the interval between them is very high,” Morgan said. “We think this happened at Kilauea between 25,000 and 50,000 years ago, and we know it happened on (adjacent volcano) Mauna Loa about 100,000 years ago, and probably more than once before that.”

While the risk of an imminent avalanche is slim, she said, the eruption, earthquake and aftershocks presented an irresistible opportunity to get a better look at the island’s hidden terrain. Every new quake that occurs along Kilauea’s rift zones and around the perimeter of the Hilina Slump and the bench helps the researchers understand the terrain.

Morgan said the United States Geological Survey, which operates the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, has a host of ground-based seismometers but none in the ocean. She said monitors at sea will reveal quakes under the bench that are too small for land seismometers to sense.

“The (initial) earthquake seems to have caused earthquakes beneath the outer bench,” Morgan said. “If that outer bench is the buttress to the slump, and that bench is beginning to show seismicity, it’s moving. At what point does it collapse?”

The seismometers are deployed around the Hilina Slump, close to shore where lava is entering the ocean and on the outer bench in line with the initial quake. “That way, aftershocks from the earthquake could be picked up and would record characteristics of the fault zone that slipped,” she said.

Rice University researchers who joined colleagues on the Big Island of Hawaii this month to place seismic instruments also took the opportunity to fly over the ongoing eruption of Kilauea July 16. With their pilot and standing from left: Jackie Caplan-Auerbach of Western Washington University, Julia Morgan of Rice, Yang Shen of the University of Rhode Island and David Blank of Rice.

 

“If this outer bench is experiencing earthquakes, we want to know what surfaces are experiencing them. Along the base? Within the bench? Some new fault that we didn’t know about? This data will provide us the ability to determine what structures, or faults, are actually slipping.”

While Blank worked days on the ship to help deploy the instruments, Morgan chose the night shift for mapping – and a better view of lava hitting the water. After their duty at sea, both took the unique opportunity to book a helicopter flight over the volcano, following the river of lava to the sea.

“If you’re following the flows, you can look down and watch the lava tear across the countryside,” she said. “Then you go out to the lava ocean entry. You see these littoral explosions as the lava is flowing into the ocean. You might get a big pulse of lava and suddenly it gets cooled and quenched so rapidly that it just explodes up into the air.”

 

Lava enters the ocean in a photo by Rice graduate student David Blank, who helped place seismic instruments on the seafloor to analyze earthquakes and aftershocks associated with the ongoing eruption of Kilauea. Photo by David Blank

Sulfur analysis supports timing of oxygen’s appearance

River water helps Rice U. scientist support rise of atmospheric oxygen 2.7 billion years ago

By Mike Williams

HOUSTON – (July 23, 2018) – Scientists have long thought oxygen appeared in Earth’s lower atmosphere 2.7 billion years ago, making life as we know it possible. A Rice University researcher has added evidence to support that number.

The sulfur record held by ancient rock marks the dramatic change in the planet’s atmosphere that gave rise to complex life, but rocks are local indicators. For the big picture, Rice biogeochemist Mark Torres used water that flows over and erodes the rocks as a proxy.

Water flowing over and eroding ancient rock exposed at the Superior Craton in Canada, represented here by the Scenic High Falls in Wawa, Ontario, holds clues to the development of Earth’s atmosphere 2.7 million years ago. A study led by Rice University showed the sulfur record held by the rock marked the dramatic change in the planet’s atmosphere that gave rise to complex life. Photo by Tom Samworth/www.itsabouttravelling.com

Water flowing over and eroding ancient rock exposed at the Superior Craton in Canada, represented here by the Scenic High Falls in Wawa, Ontario, holds clues to the development of Earth’s atmosphere 2.7 million years ago. A study led by Rice University showed the sulfur record held by the rock marked the dramatic change in the planet’s atmosphere that gave rise to complex life. Photo by Tom Samworth/www.itsabouttravelling.com

Torres, a Rice assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences, and his colleagues report in Nature Geoscience that the balance of sulfur isotope anomalies in Archean rock, a marker of the “great oxygenation event,” can also be recognized and measured in the rivers that erode it.

The researchers sampled water from two of the few places on Earth where Archean rock is exposed in abundance: at the Superior Craton in Canada and in South Africa. They determined that while individual samples of rock may still show an imbalance (the anomalies) of sulfur isotopes, careful analysis of the water that diffuses and transports sulfur from thousands of miles of rock to the ocean shows that the contents are ultimately in alignment with bulk Earth’s sulfur signature.

“Changes in chemistry can tell you something about the environment, and rocks can tell you whether there was oxygen at a particular time,” Torres said. “Early in our history, sulfur isotope anomalies are all over the place. Then, roughly 2.7 billion years ago, they disappear and they never come back.”

Sulfur is a marker because four stable isotopes, known by their molecular masses of 32, 33, 34 and 36, can show different behaviors when present in the atmosphere. “Most sulfur is mass 32, but there are small amounts of the other masses,” Torres said.

Mark Torres

Ultraviolet light from the sun reacted with sulfur gas and split it into separate compounds with heavier and lighter isotopes. Eventually, these compounds sunk into and remain in rock that formed at the time.

“But there’s this weird thing: Really old rocks have more 33-sulfur in them than we would expect, based on the relative masses,” Torres said. “Because 33 is one heavier than 32, we should easily be able to predict their relative abundances using physical chemistry. But, we find that 33 is way more abundant than expected. That’s why we call it an anomaly.”

When oxygen appeared, it absorbed ultraviolet light and quenched the sulfur reaction, as seen in the rock. That’s all well and good, Torres said, but the theory doesn’t account for anomalous sulfur that continued to leach from Archean rock into surface water, be carried to the ocean and then condense into new rock that would also have the anomaly.

“This recycling of ancient rock was a way to perpetuate the anomaly even after oxygen had arisen,” he said. The researchers suspected persistence of the anomaly could blur understanding of the timing of oxygen’s rise by as much as 100 million years.

It didn’t, they discovered, but it wasn’t easy. The team included researchers from the California Institute of Technology and the Center for Petrographic and Geochemical Research in Nancy, France. Members collected scores of samples from the Canadian sites to go along with South African samples they already had and checked their sulfur signature after eliminating the effects of contaminants from sulfurous acid rain, ice-melting road salt and dust from local mining operations. But their final calculations showed a robust balance in 33-sulfur collected by river runoff over a wide area.

“Our effort allows us to be confident we’ve got the timing for this great oxidation event, so now we can start to understand the mechanisms,” Torres said. “If you think about the whole scope of Earth’s history, 100 million years is small, but on the evolutionary timeline of organisms, it matters.”

Co-authors of the paper are Guillaume Paris, a former postdoctoral researcher at Caltech and now a researcher at the Center for Petrographic and Geochemical Research; Jess Adkins, the Smits Family Professor of Geochemistry and Global Environmental Science at Caltech; and Woodward Fischer, a professor of geobiology at Caltech.

The National Science Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and a Caltech GPS Division Discovery Award supported the research.

Read the abstract at http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0184-7

Lake bed reveals details about ancient Earth

Rice University researcher helped find oxygen evidence of atmospheric production

by Mike Williams

HOUSTON – (July 18, 2018) – Sleuthing by a Rice University postdoctoral fellow is part of a new Nature paper that gives credence to theories about Earth’s atmosphere 1.4 billion years ago.

Rice’s Justin Hayles and his colleagues, led by Peter Crockford at McGill University in Montreal, analyzed samples from an ancient Canadian lake bed that turned up anomalous oxygen isotopes embedded in deposits of sulfate. The oxygen provides hints at the extent of life on ancient Earth’s surface.

Postdoctoral fellow Justin Hayles

The researchers found the planet’s gross primary production – a measure of processes like photosynthesis – was a small fraction of modern levels during a stretch of the Proterozoic eon known to researchers as the “Boring Billion” because of the planet’s environmental and evolutionary stability.

“The Boring Billion is called boring because it seemed for a long time that nothing remarkable was occurring on Earth’s surface, but the evolution of Earth and the life on its surface continued,” Hayles said.

Hayles, a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow, did the work as a Ph.D. student at Louisiana State University. He joined the Rice lab of Laurence Yeung, an assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences, two years ago.

Hayles’ analysis with specialized mass-spectrometry equipment was part of the effort to analyze cores taken from the lake bed. “When the project started, we were just looking to see what sulfates looked like through Earth’s history,” he said. “In the process, we analyzed this one set of samples and found an anomaly.”

That anomaly was an unexpected amount of oxygen-17, one of three stable isotopes of oxygen. “This was shocking because we thought this anomaly could only exist when atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are extremely high, such as during a ‘snowball Earth‘ event,” Hayles said. “It turns out that this condition is not needed if concentrations of atmospheric oxygen (O2) and bioproductivity are much lower than today.”

Because oxygen is highly reactive, it easily combined with sulfide in what was then a lake at Ontario’s Sibley Basin. “When you form sulfate from sulfide, you get a little bit of O2 incorporated,” he said. “That is preserved as a capsule of the ancient atmosphere, so it contains oxygen from back in the Proterozoic, 1.4 billion years ago.”

The researchers suggested their discovery is the oldest direct measurement of atmospheric oxygen isotopes by nearly a billion years, taken from a time when microorganisms, including bacteria and algae, were beginning to ramp up production through photosynthesis but had not yet reached the fertile period that triggered a second “oxygenation event.”

“It has been suggested for many decades now that the composition of the atmosphere has significantly varied through time,” said Crockford, now a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton. “We provide unambiguous evidence that it was indeed much different 1.4 billion years ago.”

The researchers said their discovery could help in the search for clues to life on other planets.

“Earth during the Proterozoic was like an alien world compared with the modern Earth,” Hayles said. “The atmosphere had only a small amount of oxygen and the environment was arguably much warmer.

“Knowing how well microbial life thrived tells us what to expect on a hypothetical planet with a similar environment,” he said. “There is potential that if Mars was ever sufficiently Earth-like and the right material found its way to Earth, this technique could provide similar evidence.”

Scientists at McGill University, Louisiana State University, Lakehead University, the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, Peking University, Yale University, Princeton University and the University of California, Riverside took part in the study.

The research was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Fonds de Recherche du Quebec-Nature et Technologies and the University of Colorado Boulder.

Read the abstract at http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0349-y

Joyeeta Bhattacharya selected for Urbino Summer School in Paleoclimatology

Ph.D. candidate Joyeeta Bhattacharya is one of ten U.S. participants- among 60 world-wide- selected to participate in the coveted Urbino Summer School in Paleoclimatology (USSP).  The NSF sponsored fellowship is a three week long intensive course and workshop that provide participants with an advanced working knowledge on paleobiological and geochemical proxy data and how they are used in the reconstruction and modeling of past climates.

This 15th class of the USSP consortium, taking place July 11-27, 2018, will focus on past climate dynamics, with special emphasis on the analysis of the long-term carbon cycling and its implications in the understanding of present and future climates. The integrated lectures, symposia, field excursions, and exercises include biogeochemical cycling, paleoceanography, continental systems, and all aspects of deep-time climate modeling. Techniques, systems and models will be explored through interactive discussions of Cretaceous OAEs, P/E hyperthermals, the “Greenhouse to Icehouse” transition, and Neogene and Quaternary climate dynamics.

Ph.D. candidate Joyeeta Bhattacharya holding a section of carbonate sediment core aboard the JOIDES Resolution, IODP Expedition 371. Image courtesy of J. Bhattacharya and IODP.

The summer school is taught by the world’s leading senior scientists, with student selections based on the strength of their CVs and recommendations.  “Since my Ph.D. is quite related to Paleoclimatology and Paleoceanography as well as Sedimentology, attending Urbino is going to bolster my research skills, my knowledge and my ability as a researcher in this domain,” said Bhattacharya.

Bhattacharya applied and was accepted last summer, but could not attend because the dates conflicted with her participation on the Integrated Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) Expedition 371 cruise.  “[This year] I was accepted with full expenses covered by NSF.  My participation on shipboard courses with Texas A&M University,  and my participation as a Shipboard Scientist on IODP Expedition 371 were the key determining factors for me getting accepted.”

 

 

“Joyeeta’s participation at USSP continues an admirable Rice “tradition” of placing our graduate students in prestigious international “schools”. For USSP, Joyeeta follows fellowships granted to Lizette Leon-Rodriguez (Ph.D., 2011) and Benjamin Slotnick (Ph.D., 2015)”, said Gerald Dickens, EEPS professor and advisor to Bhattacharya.

-L. Welzenbach

Europium points to new suspect in continental mystery

Europium points to new suspect in continental mystery Study: Rare earth element implicates garnet for continents’ missing iron HOUSTON — (May 16, 2018) — Clues from some unusual Arizona rocks pointed Rice University scientists toward a discovery — a subtle chemical signature in rocks the world over — that could answer a long-standing mystery: What […]

Rice, UH team preps for massive Antarctic glacier study

A team of scientists from Rice University, the University of Houston, the University of Alabama and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory will participate in an ambitious $25 million study aimed at determining how quickly Antarctica’s massive Thwaites Glacier could collapse.

Thwaites Glacier (Photo by James Yungel/NASA)

The Thwaites research program, a joint undertaking of the National Science Foundation and the United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council, was announced today. U.S. and U.K. officials say the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC) is the largest joint project undertaken by their nations in Antarctica since the mapping of the Antarctic Peninsula more than 70 years ago.

Antarctica is covered by ice up to 2 miles thick, and gravity compresses the ice and causes it to move under its own weight. Thwaites drains ice from an area of West Antarctica almost as large as the state of Washington and is one of the largest Antarctic contributors to modern sea-level rise. From satellite measurements, scientists know that Thwaites’ rate of ice loss has doubled since the 1990s. A full collapse of the glacier could add several inches to global sea levels, and ITCG includes eight projects that hope to answer key questions about how much and how quickly Thwaites is changing.

Lauren Simkins (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

The Thwaites Offshore Research (THOR) project is led by principal investigator Julia Wellner, assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at UH, and includes Rice co-investigators Lauren Simkins and John Anderson, both of the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences. Simkins is a postdoctoral research associate and Anderson is the Maurice Ewing Chair in Oceanography.

“We have an important role in understanding changes in Thwaites Glacier,” Simkins said. “The offshore geological record contains signatures of the glacier’s retreat, and a better understanding of how the glacier has behaved in the past will allow us to better interpret what is observed today and what is predicted for the future.”

Because the land beneath Thwaites is below sea level, the glacier’s “grounding line” — the place where ice, land and water meet — is beneath a thick ice shelf that extends miles into the Amundsen Sea. Inflows of warming ocean currents beneath this and other Antarctic ice shelves have caused the grounding lines of Thwaites and other West Antarctic glaciers to retreat rapidly in recent years. THOR will use a suite of marine geological and geophysical data to examine how Thwaites retreated in the past and to determine key boundary conditions that help control its retreat.

This schematic shows an ice shelf extending miles beyond the “grounding line” where an Antarctic glacier meets both land and sea. Black lines t1, t2 and t3 show where the ice sheet was grounded to the seafloor during pauses in ice retreat. Rice University marine geologists will study the past and present grounding lines of Thwaites glacier as part of a massive U.S.-U.K. research effort. (Image courtesy of L. Prothro/Rice University)

 

THOR scientists will make high-resolution geophysical surveys of the seafloor from research ships and they’ll collect sediments from the sea floor as well as a drilling rig that can melt holes through up to 5,000 feet of the floating ice shelf.

Additional co-investigators on the THOR project include the University of Alabama’s Rebecca Minzoni, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s Frank Nitsche and U.K.-based investigators Robert Larter, Alastair Graham, Claus-Dieter Hillenbrand, James Smith and Kelly Hogan.