Sophie Nowicki’s job is to create numerical models – or visualizations – of glaciers as they flow and change. Her tools include mathematics, physics and powerful computers, aided by satellite observations and aircraft measurements.
At present, she is trying to understand the intricate physical processes taking place at the point where ice in Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier flows meets the surrounding sea. This point is called the grounding line, and it holds the glacier in place.
The location of a glacier’s grounding line changes as temperatures rise. As the glacier’s ice melts, the grounding line retreats. The grounding line of the Pine Island Glacier – often called the “weak underbelly” of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet – has retreated in recent years at a rate that alarms scientists. It retreated 5 kilometers in four years. “That’s huge,” Nowicki said.
“Satellites and aircraft tell us a lot about this region, but you need to tie it with the theoretical modeling if you’re going to get the full picture.” – Sophie Nowicki
Nowicki said that her research shows that if the grounding line of the Pine Island Glacier retreats much further inland, into deeper bedrock, then it will become an unstoppable process. This could in turn contribute to the ultimate collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, and subsequent sea level rise. Dr. Nowicki is trying to understand this process.
She is a climate modeler in the Cyrospheric Sciences branch at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center – a place where scientists study ice on Earth. Before NASA Goddard, Dr. Nowicki was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling, in the United Kingdom. She received a Ph.D. in Theoretical Glaciology from University College London in 2007.