Thursday, November 10, 2011

Remote Antarctic Expedition to Reveal Glacial Secrets

13 scientists are traveling to one of Antarctica's most remote areas to examine how warm ocean waters are melting the underbelly of a massive glacier. Conditions are so harsh that the team can only work at their outpost for six weeks before heading back to Mcmurdo Station—Antarctica's science hub.

Glaciologist Robert Bindschadler, the first person to walk on Pine Island Glacier. Image Courtesy NASA

Using satellite measurements, scientists have found that Pine Island Glacier has been rapidly receding into the ocean. Researchers will investigate the area starting in December to determine how quickly the ice is melting and what implications there may be for rising sea levels. Comprising about 10 percent of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, Pine Island Glacier could contribute significantly to global sea-level rise if it continues to melt.

Scientists hope that field measurements will enable them to better predict how much ice will melt in the coming years. Using hot water drills, researchers will bore into the glacier down to a depth of 1,640 feet (500 meters). Instruments will measure salinity, temperature and current along the way. Also, the team will deploy a camera into the hole to view all layers of the glacier from the surface to the seabed.

Drilling into the glacier presents its own challenges, but the most difficult aspect of studying the glacier might be just getting there in the first place. Due to its rough terrain, airplanes can't land on the glacier. Consequently, the team will use helicopters for part of the journey and then travel 400 miles (644 km) across land to reach the observation sites.

In the video above, glaciologist Robert Bindschadler describes the 1,400-mile (2,254 km) trek: "Going from McMurdo to west Antarctica is like flying from D.C. to Kansas City, then getting on a very slow lawn mower and driving it lawn mower speed from Kansas City out to Denver. So it does take some time."

Once the team arrives, they aim to better understand how the interactions of wind, water and ice are contributing to glacial melting. Scientists think strong winds are pushing the cold surface water away from the ice shelf, allowing the deeper, warmer waters to rise. This water flows along the sea floor on the continental shelf until it reaches the glacier's underbelly. After mixing with the newly melted glacial ice, the warm water flows back out to sea, melting more ice on the way. With in-person measurements, researchers can observe these interactions firsthand and make better projections.

For more information on the research team's expedition, check out this feature story from NASA and the corresponding media gallery.

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