Antarctica’s Secrets

by | 12.19.2010 at 12:53am
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A major factor in predicting future climate change and its impact on the planet is the response of the Earth’s ice sheets to warming temperatures. Understanding the historical context and dynamics of Antarctica’s massive ice sheets is critical for modeling future changes that have the potential to impact the globe, including significant contributions to sea level rise.

Satellite image of the study region at the edge of the Transantarctic mountains. Click to enlarge the image.

Michael Kaplan and Gisela Winckler, two climate scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, along with Kathy Licht and Jeff Swope from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, have recently started a new project, funded by the National Science Foundation, to study the timing and extent of advances of the East Antarctic ice sheet in the past. Integrating field work, geochemical analyses and cutting-edge isotope-based dating tools will allow the scientists to develop a record of fluctuations in the East Antarctic ice sheet and to identify past changes in both ice sheet flow direction and bedrock composition.

On December 13th, Kathy Licht and Mike Kaplan, along with Tim Flood and undergraduate Nicole Bader, both from St. Norbert College, left for their exciting trip to the East Antarctic plateau to collect samples to address these research objectives. Their route will take them via Christchurch, New Zealand, to the Antarctic station McMurdo and on to the East Antarctic ice sheet. It will take them about two weeks to get to the field site.

Aerial photograph of Mt. Howe taken from the window of a Twin Otter. Photo by K. Licht.

Accompanied by mountaineer Mike Roberts, they will work from two remote field camps at the edge of the Transantarctic Mountains. The satellite image shows the study region with the major outlet glaciers from East Antarctica crossing the Transantarctic Mountains and flowing northeastward into the Ross Ice Shelf and West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The sites noted in purple will be the location of the two small field camps where the group will be collecting samples. The blue star shows the location of a large field camp, which will be the jumping off point for transport to the smaller camps.  The green and yellow dots show the locations of samples collected during two previous expeditions to the region. Over the course of a month, the team will sample boulders and glacial sediments that have accumulated on the ice sheet surface over thousands of years.

Kathy and Mike will report from their adventurous trip on this blog while I will facilitate communication with the field camp and answer questions about the laboratory side of the project.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to ask. I will field questions and send them over to Antarctica from where Kathy and Mike will, whenever possible, send back answers.

Stay tuned for exciting dispatches from Antarctica.

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