“Thwaites is a terrifying glacier,” Anandakrishnan says simply. Its front end measures about 100 miles across, and its glacial basin—the thick part of the wedge, extending deep into the West Antarctic interior—runs anywhere from 3,000 to more than 4,000 feet deep.

Science season in Antarctica begins in November, when noontime temperatures at McMurdo Station climb to a balmy 18 degrees Fahrenheit and the sun hangs in the sky all day and night. For a researcher traveling there from the United States, the route takes time as well as patience. The easiest way is to fly from Los Angeles to Christchurch, New Zealand—a journey of 17 hours, if you’re lucky—and then to McMurdo, a charmless cluster of buildings that houses most of the southern continent’s thousand or so seasonal residents and both of its ATMs. McMurdo isn’t the end of the line, though. Often it’s just a pass-through for scientists hopping small planes to penguin colonies or meteorological observatories farther afield.