The convoy at Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica. Image: National Science Foundation
international team of researchers, funded by the National Science
Foundation (NSF) and NASA, will helicopter onto the Pine Island Glacier
ice shelf, one of Antarctica’s most active, remote and harsh spots, in
mid-December 2011—weather permitting.
project’s mission is to determine how much heat ocean currents deliver
to the underside of the Pine Island Glacier as it discharges into the
sea. Quantifying this heat and understanding how much melting it causes
is key to developing reliable models to predict glacier acceleration and
therefore predict how much ice will be delivered from land into the
ocean thus contributing to sea level rise.
Island Glacier has begun to flow more rapidly, discharging more ice
into the ocean, which could have a significant impact on global
sea-level rise over the coming century,” said Scott Borg, director of
the Division of Antarctic Sciences at the NSF. “This project, which aims
to determine the underlying causes of this phenomenon, illustrates the
fact that research conducted in Antarctica contributes to knowledge that
benefits society in general.”
manager of the United States Antarctic Program, NSF coordinates all
U.S. research on the southernmost continent and the surrounding ocean.
multidisciplinary group of scientists will use a combination of
traditional tools and sophisticated new oceanographic instruments to
measure the ocean cavity shape underneath the ice shelf and determine
how streams of relatively warmer ocean water enter this cavity, move
toward the very bottom of the glacier and melt its underbelly, causing
it to release more than 19 cubic miles of ice into the ocean each year.
If all goes as planned, the 13-person team will depart from McMurdo
Station, the National Science Foundation’s logistics hub on Ross Island,
in mid-December and spend six weeks on the ice shelf.
this work is difficult—Pine Island Glacier is almost 1,400 miles (2,200
km) from McMurdo Station—about the distance from Washington, D.C. to
Bismarck, North Dakota. Everything needed to support the research and
the scientists at this remote site has to be airlifted to the camp or
transported by an overland traverse.
Aerial view of Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica. Image: National Science Foundation
hazards—cold, harsh, stormy climate, as well as crevasses in the region
present even further challenges. Transporting supplies and personnel to
the site is a major undertaking and one that has taken several years to
and mitigating these hazards and obstacles has been a significant
undertaking for NSF. The Pine Island Glacier research was initially
supported as a centerpiece of NSF’s 2007-2009 International Polar Year
(IPY) suite of projects.
served as the lead agency for IPY, a coordinated deployment of
researchers from more than 60 nations to the Arctic and Antarctic.
scale of a project required to comprehend the dynamics of something as
large and complex as the forces acting on the Pine Island Glacier also
emphasizes the increasing need for agencies such as NASA and NSF to
collectively bring their expertise to bear on common goals. It also
highlights the important work done by the nation’s colleges and
universities with NSF support,” said Borg. “This is a major undertaking
but it promises very interesting and very important results.”