Peering Through Polar Ice
Early winter in the Northern Hemisphere marks the start of austral summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and the beginning of the Antarctic field season. Each year, several thousand scientists head to the icy continent to take advantage of the relatively mild, though still very harsh, weather and the 24-hour daylight; the next time the sun will fall below the horizon at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station is February 20, 2015.
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists are among the many researchers currently doing fieldwork in Antarctica. They’re leading and participating in expeditions near, above and on the continent, doing critical studies that will advance understanding of Antarctica’s land and sea processes.
Lamont biogeochemist Sonya Dyhrman is aboard an icebreaking ship, the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer, for one month. In that time she’ll slowly travel south from Punta Arenas, Chile to research sites located off the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Dhyrman, graduate student Harriet Alexander and the other cruise scientists are investigating polar food web dynamics, with a focus on the feeding and swimming behavior of krill, a small shrimp-like crustacean. During the research cruise, Dyhrman and Alexander will collect samples of water and phytoplankton from a number of different sites. Their goal is to understand the physiological ecology of phytoplankton, which form the base of the marine food web in the Southern Ocean, and are a major source of food for krill.
More than two thousand miles south, six scientists from Lamont’s Polar Geophysics Group are at McMurdo Station, a U.S. Antarctic research center located on Ross Island. They’re deploying an ice imaging system, known as IcePod, which consists of ice-penetrating radar, infrared and visible cameras, a laser altimeter and other data-collection instruments. IcePod attaches to a New York Air National Guard LC-130 aircraft and measures, in detail, the ice surface and the ice bed; important data that enables the scientists to track changes in ice sheets and glaciers.
The scientists are testing the instrumentation and training the New York Air National Guard in the deployment and operation of the instrument; this is the first time IcePod is being used in Antarctica. After the testing and training, IcePod will be operated in up to 15 other flights for routine data collection.
Also at McMurdo Station are Lamont geologists Sidney Hemming and Trevor Williams. The two scientists and their colleagues Kathy Licht and Peter Braddock will soon fly to a field site in the remote Thomas Hills, near the Weddell Sea in the Atlantic sector of Antarctica. There they’ll spend four weeks making observations and collecting rock samples from the exposed tills on the edge of the massive Foundation Ice Stream, as well as from the Stephenson Bastion and Whichaway Nunataks.
The group is examining how ice sheets in the Weddell Sea embayment will respond to changing climate, specifically how Antarctic ice retreats and which parts of the ice sheet are most prone to retreat. Understanding the behavior of the Antarctic ice sheets and ice streams provides critical information about climate change and future sea level rise.
Thanks to the Internet and the scientists’ dedication to outreach, it’s possible to join their Antarctic expeditions without donning extreme cold weather gear. Follow the Dyhrman’s cruise activities on Twitter via @DyhrmanLab and #TeamDyhrman, and learn more about their research on the cruise website.
The first dedicated Antarctic Icepod mission was flown out across the center of the Ross Ice Shelf. Ice shelves are thick floating extensions of the ice sheet that form as the ice flows off the continent and into the surrounding ocean. These are critical ice features in Antarctica, bounding a full 44 percent of her coastline, where they serve as a buttress to slow the ice movement off the continent into the ocean.
The Ross Ice Shelf is the largest of the Antarctic ice shelves, measuring just under the size of the state of Texas. It is several hundred meters thick, although most of this is below the water surface. Along the ~ 600 kilometer front edge of the shelf, the ice towers up to 50 meters in height; a sheer vertical wall of white and the iridescent blue of compressed ice.
The goal of the six-and-a-half-hour mission was to test how the Icepod could image the varying processes at the base of the ice shelf and how well the gravimeter would work flying 90m/sec.
The gravimeter is a new addition to the Icepod suite of instruments. Housed separately inside the plane, the gravimeter requires a very stable platform. The instrument will be critical for determining the water depth beneath the Ross Ice Shelf, the least explored piece of ocean floor on our planet. The plan was to cross the front of the ice shelf towards Roosevelt Island, then fly inland until the plane crossed the J9 site where the first hole through the ice shelf was drilled in the early 1970s as part of the Ross Ice Shelf Project (RISP). Icepod would then fly back toward McMurdo along a line where there are plans for another science project to drill next year.
The collected radar data showed remarkable variability over the ice. Crossing over Roosevelt Island, the change from floating shelf ice to marginal crevasses (deep cuts or openings in the ice) to ice sitting directly on the bedrock was imaged. The variation in the reflection from the bottom of the ice probably represented the different processes occurring at the ice sheet base. In some places there was evidence of ice being added to the bottom of the shelf.
When the RISP team, which included Lamont’s Stan Jacobs, drilled through J9 in the 1970s, they found refrozen ice with a structure that resembled waffles. That team also captured pictures of fish beneath the ice shelf, demonstrating that the area below was not the wasteland that it was originally believed to be. Icepod overflew the best fishing hole on the Ross Ice Shelf while the team looked at the pictures of the bright-eyed fish in the Science paper, and smiled. It is almost 50 years later, and while we have a much better understanding of Antarctica, there remains so much that is unexplored.
Icepod and the LC-130 returned to Willie Field and began immediately to plan for the next flight.
For more on the IcePod project: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/res/pi/icepod/
Migrating south in the winter is a behavior that Antarctic scientists share with many species of birds, although the scientists fly just a bit further south. For the IcePod team, it was time to join the migration so they could test their equipment in the most challenging environment the Earth has to offer. After three “equipment shake down” trips to Greenland over the last two years, 20 hours of flight time have been set aside for flights in Antarctica, part of the final hurdle in the commissioning of the pod.
The team arrived early this month at McMurdo Base on a large C-17 to –14°F weather and beautiful clear blue sky as the plane touched down on the Pegasus Blue Ice Runway. The first few days were spent in training for everything from driving trucks in the cold to being environmentally sensitive to the Antarctic microbes to a crash course on interpreting the complex way trash is handled in Antarctica — an impressive 60 percent of everything is recycled.
The gear arrived soon after the team… first the gravity meter, borrowed from New Zealand, wrapped in a warm, manly pinkish quilt. With many boxes being stacked in the aircraft, the color was selected for its high visibility to assist with quick location and unloading. The IcePod and the equipment rack had paused on their trip down in Pago Pago, arriving a few days after the rest of the gear, but it was all quickly set up and humming in a bright yellow and blue rack tent next to the Willy Airfield on the Ross Ice Shelf. While waiting to fly, a GPS was installed on top of the tent, and equipment was set up to test performance. Both the GPS and the gravity meter measured the movement of the ice shelf as it shifted up and down on the tide ~ 1 meter a day. In addition to the rhythmic up/down movement, the tent, the airfield and the ice shelf are all moving northwards at 30 cm or 1 foot a day.
Finally, IcePod was cleared to fly and complete her first Antarctic survey mission installed on a Pole Tanker mission flying on Skier 95. The flight was delayed as the C-17 practiced airdrops over the South Pole runway, but as soon as the C-17 was out of the way, icePod took off and headed south.
Low elevation data was collected on the way out to make sure the C-17 was clear. All the instruments worked in the flight across the very flat Ross Ice Shelf, then over the Transantarctic Mountains and across the spectacular East Antarctic Ice Sheet.
The low angle of the sun made the mountains, crevasses and wind scour areas stand out beautifully in the imagery. The deep radar imaged the structure of the Ross Ice Shelf even from 21,000 feet. The infra-red camera showed the variable temperature of the different types of ice in the Beardmore Glacier and the high plateau. The gravity meter that had rolled in on the speed pallet was extremely stable. At the South Pole, Skier 95 offloaded fuel while the IcePod team made a quick trip to the actual pole.
The flight was a success – data collected on an opportune flight and fuel delivered.
For more on the IcePod project: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/res/pi/icepod/