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Notes from the Field

Coming Together

December 12th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

Christchurch (New Zealand), 29 November — I realized as the moment approached to get in the car and head for the airport that I have been mentally drifting south over the past couple of days. Going over the list of what to pack, then packing, and then mentally running through what I packed, caused me to try to envision every situation I might encounter (at Pine Island, McMurdo Station and even in New Zealand) and what I wanted to be sure to have. “Where’s my ear sweater?” “I need to find my down booties.” Those were the kind of thoughts going through my head. Personal comfort is a big deal in Antarctica—although you can’t take everything with you, when the weather gets nasty you want to have the right stuff.

These same scenes are being played out in other locations; every member of our team is experiencing something very similar as they pack their bags and run through their own list of possible upcoming situations in their minds. Successful Antarctic field work is very much about accurately anticipating what is likely to happen so you are prepared beforehand. When you forget a tool, help is usually very far away and can’t be counted on. You learn to make do with what you have.

Everyone on the team understands this and is preparing accordingly. When our proposal was first submitted, I called them the Dream Team. Some reviewers were offended by the term, but it’s a good way to express the fact that we have the best Antarctic geophysicist, the best engineer of polar oceanographic instrumentation, the best ocean-ice boundary layer oceanographer, the best developer of ice borehole instrumentation and the best lightweight hot water drillers on the planet. Our collective years of polar field experience are measured not in months or years, but decades. I’m extremely proud of the team we have and am confident that if we can’t do this job, this job can’t be done.

Tomorrow, most of us will meet again for the beginning of two months together. We have flown to Christchurch, New Zealand from places scattered across the US: Alaska, California, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Maryland. We come here to receive our cold-weather clothing the National Science Foundation provides us. We try it on for size, change whatever doesn’t fit, return what we don’t want and request special items of personal preference. Each kit will be different in hidden details of shirts, vests, and even underwear, but in the end we all will probably have the same black ski pants/red parka exterior that scientists in the US Antarctic program take on. Good clothing is important—it’s what keeps you warm. You pay attention to what you are given and what you take with you to “The Ice”.

It’s Showtime!

December 9th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

Greenbelt (MD), 23 November — After years of waiting, our time has finally come. The years have not been empty. There have been hundreds of e-mails, scores of telephone conferences and a handful of face-to-face meetings to iron out the mountain of details required to support more than a dozen scientists’ intent of unlocking critical mysteries within the light-less, frigid void beneath a thick floating plate of ice in one of the most remote regions on earth: the Pine Island Glacier.

What causes my team of scientific experts and me to focus on this seemingly innocuous location is a silent change that is unfolding and already affecting millions of people in their everyday existence, quietly threatening billions more. Ice sheets, those vast continental-sized slabs of ice in Greenland and Antarctica, are shrinking. The ice they are shedding is raising sea level across the globe. This is bad news. The good news is that the rise is gradual. My job is to understand the processes that cause ice sheets to shrink so that credible projections can be shared with policy makers and planners. If we get this right, societies will have the chance to adjust to rising sea level in a deliberate manner and minimize the human and economic impacts.

We are heading to a particularly remote corner of the planet, expecting to be greeted with bone-chilling temperatures, violent winds and dangerous crevasses (deep cracks in the ice) because this is where satellite data tells us that the Antarctic ice sheet is losing ice most rapidly. The Pine Island Glacier (called PIG, for short, from here on,) has nearly doubled it speed in the past 15 years and is thinning at rates of nearly 10 meters (30 feet) per year. It alone is responsible for 7 percent of the total global rate of sea level rise. The pattern of change satellites have captured shows that the changes are greatest at the coast and decrease inland. That means the trigger for these changes is located at the coast where the ice meets the ocean. PIG is 1200 meters (4000 feet) deep at the coast where it plows into the ocean forming a thick floating ice shelf. As the glacier forces its way into the frigid waters, the ocean resists its icy intrusion. The ice shelf can be thought of as a plug that limits the rate at which the PIG can drain the ice sheet. The little Dutch boy’s thumb inserted into the dike to hold back the sea is a particularly apt metaphor, in this case.

The problem is that the ocean is melting the underside of this PIG ice shelf, making it thinner and allowing the PIG to flow faster. This is what we’ve come to study. This is where the key to ice sheet stability and future sea level will be revealed. Damn the wind, damn the cold, damn the crevasses—we are on a mission and we will get our answers. This is the level of drive and determination that is required to do the work we have given ourselves.

In future blog posts, we’ll write about who we are, what we plan to do and, inevitably, how our initial plan changes as we wrestle with Mother Nature. For now I hope this captures your interest and sets the stage. I have had the luxury this year (this will be my sixteenth Antarctic expedition I’ve led) of enjoying Thanksgiving with my family, but already my mind is turning southward and my packing occupies a large corner of my bedroom. Yesterday was my last day in the office and I couldn’t leave with the others who were thinking most about tomorrow’s Thanksgiving pleasures until I felt all the unfinished work I left behind could withstand a two-month hiatus. It felt strange to close the office door that final time, but once I imagined the house lights being turned down on all the other work, I could feel the glare of the stage lights being cranked up to their full brightness on this field expedition. It’s showtime! The waiting and planning are over and this adventure is about to begin.

Learn more about the Pine Island Glacier expedition on the project’s website, or by reading this NASA web feature.