ice-bridge_main FROM THE FIELD
Operation Ice Bridge

The Story at Ronne

by |November 8, 2012

Travel to the Ronne Ice Shelf involved passing by the Ellesworth Mountains. The range contains Antarctica’s highest peak, Vinson Massif at 4897 meters of elevation.

Named after Edith Ronne, the first American woman to set foot on this southern continent, the Ronne Ice Shelf is tucked just to the East of the Antarctic Peninsula on the backside of the Transantarctic Mountains. With an area measured at 422,000 square kms, this is the second largest ice shelf in Antarctica. This vast icy expanse stretches into an indentation in the Antarctic coastline called the Weddell Sea, and gained some attention this past spring when scientists identified a mechanism that will force warming ocean water up against Ronne, which over time will cause it to thin and weaken (Hellmer, H. H. et al., 2012). Ice shelves are important barriers slowing the flux of ice moving off the land into the surrounding ocean. Any weakening in the tight connection of this ice to the land, either at the bottom where the shelf freezes to the ground below or where at the edges where it is tightly fused to the continent, can have major impacts on the speed and volume (flux) of ice moving off the land and into the oceans.

Annotated Antarctic map showing the area of study.

The current mission is being flown to measure the flux of ice currently coming into the Ronne Ice Shelf from the surrounding Antarctic landmass. To determine this we focus on the ‘grounding line’, the area where the ice changes from being frozen solid to the land below to floating as part of the ice shelf. To understand how much ice is moving over the grounding line, we have to understand how much ice is at the grounding line, and to do this we have to fly along the grounding line (or slightly inshore of it).

The majestic Ellsworth Mountains, formed about 190 million years ago, are the highest range in Antarctica, and steeper than the Tetons. Their original name, Sentinel Range, describes their posture, as they watch over the Weddell Sea and the Ronne Ice Shelf.

In many areas of Antarctica, even knowing where the grounding line is takes a lot of work. Much of that work is done using satellite data through a process called “interferometry”. This process compares the returning radar signal from different satellite passes to determine where the ice begins to move under the influence of the ocean tides. In this scale, ice that is responding to the rise and fall of the tides is floating ice, and from this we can mark the grounding line. While technique identifies the grounding line, it does not show how much ice is moving across it; to determine that we need to collect ice thickness measurements. For today’s flight we moved just inland of the grounding line for about half of the Ronne Ice Shelf collecting ice thickness and other supporting data that will begin to fill in this important information.

Reference: Hellmer, H. H. et al. Nature, 2012. DOI:10.1038/nature11064. 

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