Research ranging from sea floor sediments to the origins ofthe universe will be conducted during the 1998-99 austral summerresearch season in Antarctica. Approximately 130 researchprojects will be supported by the National Science Foundation(NSF), the federal agency that funds and manages the U.S.Antarctic Program (USAP).
The USAP operates three year-round researchstations_McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole and Palmer_as well astwo research vessels, the Nathaniel B. Palmer and a new vessel,the Laurence M. Gould. The USAP also collaborates with othercountries' Antarctic programs.
Research will be conducted in the earth sciences,glaciology, biology, medicine, oceanography, meteorology,astrophysics and aeronomy (studies of the upper atmosphere).This year approximately 700 investigators and technicians willdeploy to Antarctica. Highlights of the current season include:
CAPE ROBERTS PROJECT: The Cape Roberts project, an internationaleffort involving scientists from the United States, New Zealand,Italy, the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany, will attempt tocollect cores from the Ross Sea floor. The team will drillthrough sea ice and about 170 meters of water into the underlyingsea floor. Ice at least 1.5 meters thick is needed to serve as adrilling platform. Sediments and fossils in the drill coreshould help provide information about conditions 25-70 millionyears ago, and fill in gaps missing from knowledge of the Earth'sclimate. During this interval of time, the first ice sheets inAntarctica began to form. This period is particularly importantas it covers a period in Earth's history when the earth lastexperienced temperatures as warm as those that are expected overthe next few centuries due to greenhouse warming. This year iscrucial to the project, which has been plagued by poor sea-iceconditions in the two previous seasons. Conditions look promisingthis season.
SULFUR AT THE SOUTH POLE: Microscopic sulfur particles in theatmosphere are some of the major components in climate changescenarios_both naturally produced and man-made sulfur compoundsreflect solar radiation, produce atmospheric haze and acid rain,and affect ozone depletion. Sulfate particles are very good atacting as condensation nuclei for water vapor, creating clouds.Researchers will seek to improve understanding of the atmosphericchemistry of sulfur compounds (some of which are produced byoceanic phytoplankton) and the climatic interpretation of sulfurbased signals in Antarctic ice core records.
BALLOONING OVER ANTARCTICA: A major long-duration balloon flightwill circle the continent gathering data at an altitude ofapproximately 120,000 feet for about two weeks before beingparachuted to the ice for recovery. The balloon, supplied andlaunched by NASA, has a volume of about 30 million cubic feet andcan lift payloads heavier than a ton. The project will measure,with unprecedented sensitivity, the temperature variations acrossthe sky of the cosmic microwave background radiation. Detailsabout these relic photons left over from the beginnings of theuniverse will help scientists discriminate with exquisitesensitivity among various models of the cosmos.
FOSSIL FINDS: In conjunction with the Argentine AntarcticInstitute, researchers will be excavating Mosasaur and Plesiosaurfossils and searching for Hadrosaur fossils on Vega Island nearthe Antarctic peninsula. The Mosasaur and Plesiosaur fossilswill provide important information about thisclass of marine dinosaurs and about the geographic distributionof these marine reptiles during the age of dinosaurs. Last year,this team discovered the only Hadrosaur fossils outside theAmericas. Hadrosaurs were large land-dwelling, plant-eatingdinosaurs and the Antarctic fossils are important because theydemonstrate a significant land bridge between the Americas andAntarctica. They are also evidence of a complex and extensiveplant ecosystem on land in the region which was then at a highsouthern latitude, not unlike its current position.
WEST ANTARCTIC ICE SHEET: The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, whichrests on thin continental crust, may be an important contributorto a future global warming-induced sea level rise. A number ofstudies are adding to our knowledge of the history of the icesheet, which has implications for understanding the Earth's pastclimatic conditions and for models predicting future climatechanges. At Siple Dome, an enormous semi-circular ridge of icebetween two quickly flowing glaciers or "ice streams", a 1,000meter ice core will be drilled and the layers of snow, somewhatlike rings in a tree, will be examined for information about pastclimate conditions. Also at Siple Dome, researchers will try todetermine the dynamics of ice flow-a topic critical tounderstanding the stability of the ice sheet. Researchers willalso examine the glacial geologic history of the TransantarcticMountains. Others will study the deposits from volcanoes in WestAntarctica attempting to determine the past ice sheet elevationby dating imbedded volcanic rocks.
A SEAL'S-EYE VIEW: For an air-breathing mammal, seals forage forfood in an unforgiving environment_under water covered in ice.Researchers will attach a small video system and a data logger toWeddell seals' backs and measure oxygen consumption during divesto determine how seals hunt for food and how efficient they areat doing so. Using the data gathered, the researchers willconduct computer analyses of data on depth, swimming speed, andbearing, enabling them to create a 3-D path of the seals' divesand correlate that information with video of the seals' heads andthe immediate environment in front of the seal. Other gatheredinformation will allow them to calculate how efficient the seals'foraging strategies are in different environments and whenhunting for various types of prey.
ULTRAVIOLET CRUISE: In this multi-disciplinary cruise,researchers will study the effects of solar ultraviolet radiationon bacterioplankton, phytoplankton, zooplankton as well thephotochemistry of bacterial growth processes in the ocean. Theywill examine how biological responses toultraviolet radiation are affected by ozone, explore interactionswith marine viruses, and study the interplay within the food web.
INTERACTIONS BETWEEN THE ATMOSPHERE AND THE OCEAN: This seasonwill be the final field season for ROAVERRS (Research on OceanAtmosphere Variability and Ecosystem Response in the Ross Sea), amultidisciplinary study of the atmospheric and oceanicinteraction conducted on board the Nathaniel B. Palmer. Theresearch will lead to a better understanding of the polar marineecosystem in response to climate variables. Ship-based scientistswill measure: wind and air temperature; ice cover, ice movement,and sea surface temperature; small-scale water circulation in thetop layers of the sea; organic materials within the oceancirculation; and the amount, distribution and respiration ratesof plants and animals on the sea floor. Combined withmeteorological data, scientists expect they can monitor changesin airflow patterns in the southwestern Ross Sea to determinetheir influence on oceanographic and biological patterns.
CONSTRUCTION AT POLE: Construction for the new South Polestation will intensify, focusing on the completion of vehiclemaintenance and shop facilities and the replacement of rubberfuel bladders with steel tanks. These safety and environmentalupgrades will complement the South Pole Station Modernization_a$128 million project to replace the existing station by 2005.The current station is 20 years old and nearing the end of itseffective utility.
GOULD: This is the first full season of the R/V Laurence M.Gould, after several initial cruises last season. The researchvessel will embark on cruises in support of ultraviolet research,Long Term Ecological Research, marine geology and geophysics aswell as providing logistic support to Palmer station. The Gouldis an ABS A1 icebreaker (capable of breaking ice one foot thick)and is 230 feet long with a displacement of 3,411 tons. It wasbuilt in LaRose Louisiana and is owned and operated by EdisonChouest Offshore Corporation (ECO). The Gould is under a charterwith Antarctic Support Associates (ASA). Both USAP IcebreakingResearch Vessels_the Gould and the Nathaniel B. Palmer--are ownedand operated by ECO under charter to ASA.
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