Researchers plan to map the surface of the vast Antarctic ice sheet with airborne radar, measure the movement of the Earth's crust beneath the ice with Global Positioning Systemtransceivers and deploy buoys to explore the waters off the Antarctic Peninsula when the U.S. Antarctic Program's 2001-2002 research season gets underway next month.
"For almost 50 years, the United States has been engaged with the community of nations in scientific inquiry in Antarctica, a continent set aside for peaceful exploration," said Karl Erb, the director of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Office of Polar Programs and the head of the U.S. Antarctic Program. "At the dawn of a new century, that commitment to research is stronger than ever."
The research season gets underway in October, when the New York Air National Guard and U.S. Air Force will begin bringing about 3,000 researchers and logistics personnel as well asmateriel into McMurdo Station, NSF’s scientific hub on the continent. The flights will continue over the course of the season, which ends in February, the onset of fall in Antarctica.
Scientists from across the United States will travel to Antarctica in the coming months to conduct new and ongoing and studies in the earth sciences, glaciology, biology, oceanography, meteorology, astrophysics and aeronomy, or studies of the upper atmosphere.
In addition to science near McMurdo Station and at the South Pole, research also is conducted year-round at Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula and on the research ships Nathaniel B.Palmer and Laurence M. Gould.
Among the significant research projects scheduled for the 2001-2002 season are:
- LAKE VOSTOK: Ice that formed over the last 400,000 years and that had been extracted from the ice sheet above subglacial Lake Vostok in an earlier joint Russian, French, and U.S. project, will be retrieved and analyzed in laboratories in all three countries. Scientists expect to learn more about ancient microorganisms trapped in the ice, and whether they differ from contemporary organisms. The analyses also are expected to provide information about the water in this long-buried lake and the processes that take place on its shores and in its waters.
- WEST ANTARCTICA GPS NETWORK (WAGN): Researchers this season will begin to deploy a series of Global Positioning System transceivers across the interior of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet -- an area approximately the size of the contiguous United States from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast. The ability to measure the motions of the Earth's crust in the bedrock surrounding and underlying the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is critical to understanding the past, present, and future dynamics of the ice sheet and its potential role in future global change scenarios, as well as improving the understanding of Antarctica's role in global plate motions. WAGN will complement existing GPS projects by filling a major gap incoverage among several discrete crustal blocks that make up West Antarctica -- a critical area of potential bedrock movements.
- INTERNATIONAL TRANSANTARCTIC SCIENTIFIC EXPEDITION (ITASE): The U.S. component of the multi-year International Transantarctic Scientific Expedition (U.S. ITASE) will carry out, this season, the third in a series of four traverses over the West Antarctic ice sheet. The broad aim of US ITASE is to develop an understanding of the last 200 years of past West Antarctic climate and environmental change. ITASE is a multidisciplinary program that integrates remote sensing, meteorology, ice coring, surface glaciology and geophysics. This year researchers will continue to collect shallow ice core and snow pit samples for various ice chemical analyses, shallow and deep radar data to look at internal layer reflections and bedrock topography, atmospheric samples, and meteorological readings to understand the current climate of the ice sheet. These data will contribute to a better understanding of the West Antarctic ice sheet both today and in the recent past.
- KILLER WHALES: Working aboard a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will obtain tissue samples from live, free-swimming killer whales to determine whether a group of whales, discovered 20 years ago in the vicinity of McMurdo Station, constitute a new species. The Antarctic whales generally are smaller than other killer whales and display a different color pattern.
- LASER MAPPING: As part of a partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, NSF is collaborating with NASA during the 2001-2002 field-season to test a scanning laser altimeter system in The vicinity of McMurdo Station. The data collected will be used by NSF researchers studying biology, geology, and glaciology and by NASA's ICESat team to assist in the calibration of their data.
- SOUTHERN OCEAN GLOBAL ECOSYSTEMS DYNAMICS (SO GLOBEC): Two U.S. Antarctic Program research ships - the icebreaking research ship Nathaniel B. Palmer and the ice-strengthened research ship Laurence M. Gould -will conduct five cruises in Marguerite Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula region. A continuation of research undertaken in the 2001 research season, the new cruises will deploy a series of moorings, which will include current meters, sensors to measure salinity, temperature and zooplankton concentration, upward-looking acoustic sounders to track ice motion, and acoustic Doppler current profilers.
- HISTORIC HUTS: Researchers will study the biological and non-biological agents responsible for causing deterioration in a series of historically significant huts built by Antarctic explorers in the early 20th century. Over the past 90 years, the extremes of the polar environment have protected some of the artifacts in the huts from rapid decay, but conservators have become concerned about degradation of these important historical, archaeological sites. They will study the mechanisms and progressive sequence of events taking place during decay processes, test methods to be used to control future deterioration, determine the extent of environmental pollutants in soils at the historic sites, and evaluate chemical spills within the huts.
- SOUTH POLE ASTROPHYSICS: Several telescopes located at the South Pole will continue their investigations onto the origins of the universe, including the Degree Angular Scale Inferometer (DASI). Results from DASI last spring helped show scientists evidence of how the universe looked in its infancy. (See attached fact sheet on astrophysics at the Pole). In addition to scientific research, construction of a new elevated building to replace the existing Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station will continue. The construction of exteriors ofwings that will house station services, medical facilities and science labs will begin, with the interiors being completed during the next austral winter. The station is scheduled forcompletion in 2006.
Construction began last season with a wing that houses dormitory and galley facilities as well as vertical tower that will provide access to the new station, which is capable of being raised hydraulically over the years to keep it above accumulating snow and ice.
Several environmental, safety and telecommunications upgrades at the station also were completed last season. Work has continued over the austral winter on the interior of the new wing with the goal of allowing a portion of the station's winter personnel to live in the new building next season.
Biology laboratories at Palmer Station also are slated for renovation this year. And construction also will begin approximately eight kilometers (4.9 miles) from the South Pole station on the South Pole Remote Earth Science Observatory (SPRESO). Seismic data already collected at Pole is in high demand among researchers; the new observatory at its more remote site, however, will improve the usefulness of the data by reducing the amount of background noise from the station.
The above story is based on materials provided by National Science Foundation. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.