Thwaites Glacier is melting fast. But to understand how climate change is driving its decline, scientists need to send instruments through 2,000 feet of ice into the water below.

Aurora Basinski crouches in a tent on a glacier jutting out from Antarctica, half a mile off solid land. She’s tinkering with a device called a VMP, which measures water temperature and salinity, when she starts cursing.

Thirty-six hours before, a storm moved off West Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier, giving Basinski and her fellow investigators a tiny, critical window of time. They dug their equipment out of snow drifts as tall as themselves and on January 8 began hot-water drilling a 14-inch-wide hole down into the glacier.

Basinski is one of about 50 researchers working on the eastern tongue of Thwaites Glacier as part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC). The $50 million, five-year study is supported by the U.S. Antarctic Program and the British Antarctic Survey. The goal is to better understand how climate change is affecting Thwaites, nicknamed the “doomsday glacier” because it’s melting so quickly. Researchers will deploy all manner of scientific instruments across its surface. But to really understand what’s happening with Thwaites, they also need to send instruments into the water below it.

And that means drilling a hole through 2,000 feet of ice.

The team on the aptly named MELT project drills in shifts for 36 hours and by the time they hit water below the glacier, their borehole is twice as tall as the Eiffel Tower. Basinski and her advisor, New York University mathematician and ITGC Principal Investigator David Holland, immediately begin a “science shift,” trading in drilling tools for fine-tuned scientific instruments. It’s already the middle of the night, and when Basinski’s VMP acts up, she’s forced to stay awake fiddling with the device for another 12 hours.

“You want to get good data,” she says. “You have one shot.”

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