Later this month teams of scientists, engineers, pilots and support staff from British Antarctic Survey (BAS), USA, Germany, Australia, China and Japan will join forces for one of the most scientifically, technically ambitious and physically demanding Antarctic projects yet to be undertaken.
The mission of this International Polar Year (IPY) project is to uncover secrets of the enigmatic Gamburtsev subglacial mountains that are buried by up to 4 km of ice; to hunt for the oldest ice on our planet; to study subglacial lakes and to discover new clues of past, present and future climate change.
The Gamburtsev subglacial mountains are thought to be the birthplace of the vast East Antarctic Ice Sheet. This project will reveal clues to how the mountains were formed and provide scientists with the best location for future ice core drilling campaigns.
Geophysicist Dr Fausto Ferraccioli of BAS is leading the UK science effort. He says, “This is both an exciting and challenging project. It is a bit like preparing to go to Mars. Because of IPY, scientists from six countries are working together to do the unthinkable, to explore the deep interior of East Antarctica – one of the last frontier regions of our planet. For two and a half months our international teams will pool their resources and expertise to survey mountains the size of the Alps buried under the ice sheet that currently defy any reasonable geological explanation. At the same time, we will hunt for ice that is more than 1.2 million years old. Locked in this ancient ice is a detailed record of past climate change that will assist in making better predictions for our future.”
Working at high altitude in temperatures of minus 40ºC, science teams will operate from two remote field camps to complete the first major geophysical survey to ‘map’ the mysterious landscape that lies beneath the vast ice sheet.
The science teams will use a range of state-of-the-art technologies to build an unprecedented 3-dimensional view of this secret world. BAS and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) will work together with the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) to deploy two survey aircraft, equipped with ice-penetrating radar, gravimeters and magnetic sensors. US, Chinese and Japanese teams will study the deeper structure under the Gamburtsev subglacial mountains using seismology.
Mounting this scientific expedition is an enormous and challenging international effort involving six countries, nine aircraft and two deep-field science camps. All this is supported from US Amundsen-Scott Station at South Pole, McMurdo Research Station, from the Australian Davis Station and the BAS Rothera Research Station. Science and support teams on the Chinese tractor-train from South Pole to Zhongshan Station will sample ice cores and decommission the UK-Australian Camp.
Professor Nicholas Owens, Director of British Antarctic Survey says, “There’s an amazing history of our planet locked in Antarctica’s ice and rocks. It’s only now that we have the technology to start uncovering the secrets from this unique natural laboratory. This is really big science and it can be done only by working with partners from other national Antarctic programmes. It’s exciting, very demanding in terms of physical hardship and logistics coordination, but this joint effort will yield the kind of information that scientists need to understand our past, present and future climate. In a changing world, with so much uncertainty about our future it is absolutely crucial for society that we find answers to fundamental questions about our Earth.”
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