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National Science Foundation
U.S. research activities in Antarctica
Table of Contents
I. Some reasons to perform scientific research in the Antarctic
II. Season project highlights, 2009-2010
III. Construction highlights, 2009-2010
IV. Environmental protection; waste management
V. Personnel, Stations, and Camps
VI. Support Operations, 2009-2010
VII. United States Antarctic Policy and Achievements
VIII. National Science Foundation
XI. U.S. Antarctic Program aircraft and supply ship operations, 2009-2010 season
U.S. Antarctic Program research projects list, 2009-2010
PDF Version (260 KB)
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OPP 10-001 December 2009
Season project highlights, 2009-2010

The table shows this year’s number of U.S. Antarctic Program research projects and related activities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.1  Projects range in size from one person to tens of people, and time in the Antarctic ranges from a few days to years.  Some of these 124 science and technical projects are active at more than one location.  A few are described below.

Discipline

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

McMurdo and camps

13

23

13

11

5

2

4

6

1

South Pole

15

0

1

0

2

0

1

0

1

Palmer

1

7

1

0

2

0

0

2

2

Ships

2

7

0

0

8

3

0

0

0

Support by non-USAP resources*

2

3

6

1

1

1

0

0

0

*Includes support at stations and research ships of other national programs, e.g. the Swedish icebreaker Oden.

Programs

1 Aeronomy, astrophysics 5 Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences
2 Organisms, ecosystems 6 Integrated System Science
3 Earth Sciences 7 Artists, writers
4 Glaciology 8 Technical Projects
9 IPY Education and Outreach
  1. 10-meter telescope. Construction of the 10-meter telescope, or South Pole Telescope (SPT), was completed as planned with the first light achieved in February 2007.2  By surveying 4,000 square degrees of the sky with high sensitivity in three wavelength bands, the SPT can detect galaxy clusters through the spectral distortion they impart on the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), called the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich Effect (SZE). The first tow winters of observations proved the planned observational capabilities of the telescope with detection for the first time of early galaxy clusters via their SZE in the CMB. . The resulting catalog of galaxy clusters will be used to set constraints on the mysterious dark energy that dominates the mass-energy density of the Universe and is causing the expansion of the Universe to accelerate.
  1. IceCube.  Work continues on the world’s largest neutrino detector, which—after 7 years of work—will occupy a cubic kilometer of ice beneath the South Pole Station, deploying more than 5,000 photomultiplier detectors into 86 holes that the Enhanced Hot Water Drill (EHWD) makes in the ice.  Neutrinos are special but hard to detect astronomical messengers that can carry information from violent cosmological events at the edge of the Universe or from the hearts of black holes. Historically, astronomical work in new energy regions has invariably discovered unexpected phenomena. By peering through a new window on the Universe, IceCube could open new frontiers of understanding. Currently, IceCube operates 59 strings collecting data that are already in scientific analyses.  This austral summer researchers plan to install 18-20 strings and trench and install 14 IceTop stations. They will replace components of the EHWD system as needed and perform sub system tests on electrical and plumbing systems.3

  2. Searching for the Universe’s beginning. Mounting evidence indicates that the observable Universe began in a dramatic superluminal inflation of a sub-nuclear volume (known as the “Big Bang”). This violent acceleration of matter would have produced a Cosmic Gravitational-wave Background (CGB), the amplitude of which measures the energy scale at which inflation occurred. The CGB imprints a signature, which can be measured directly or indirectly, in the polarization of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). At the South Pole, the BICEP1 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) telescope will be upgraded to increase the telescope’s mapping speed almost 10 times.  Researchers hope to detect the polarization signature of the CGB, gravitational lensing of CMB polarization on scales of less than 1°, characterize the galactic foregrounds in the cleanest field on the sky, and prepare for an even more sensitive search for the CGB from South Pole Station that will use six compact, mechanically-cooled receivers deployed simultaneously on the DASI mount. 4

  3. Long-term ecological research (LTER).  Two sites in Antarctica — the McMurdo Dry Valleys and the marine environment on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula— are among 26 NSF-sponsored LTER sites dedicated to understanding ecological phenomena over long temporal and large spatial scales (most of the other sites are in the continental United States).5  These sites are providing important data regarding global change (and annual variability) impacts on oceanic ecosystems, and how extreme cold terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems support unusual life forms.

  4. Weddell seal population dynamics.  Weddell seals in McMurdo Sound have been studied since 1968—providing one of the longest intensive field investigations of long-lived mammals in the world.  More than 15,000 animals have been tagged, and 145,000 re-sightings have been recorded.  The project is a resource for understanding the life history and population dynamics of not only Weddell seals, but also other species of terrestrial and marine mammals.  Data collected this austral summer will be correlated with variables including sea ice conditions, colony, age, time of year, survival, and reproduction to understand the role of climate, local colony characteristics, and individual characteristics on body mass and population dynamics.6  Other projects focused on Weddell seals will determine how Weddell seals locate and capture prey and then relocate breathing holes in the ice under low, ambient light levels and determine how behavioral and physiological-metabolic responses to minimal low ambient light level and seasonality influence energetic costs, benefits and efficiency of foraging.  In an interesting twist, researchers will use seals to understand physical oceanographic processes, by instrumenting individuals with small oceanographic sensor that take data, and transmit information to researchers via satellite, while seals forage.

  5. Adelie penguin populations and climate change.   The Adelie penguin is tied to sea ice, a key environmental variable affected by rapid climate change.  Researchers will investigate the populations of Adelie penguins on Ross and Beaufort Islands, where colonies have recently expanded, relative to colonies at Cape Crozier that declined during the 1960s and 1970s.  The information will be related to sea ice, as quantified by satellite images, and other climatic variables.  This study is an important counterpoint to another project in the West Antarctic Peninsula, where sea ice extent and Adelie penguin populations are shrinking due to warming trends.  Understanding the mechanisms behind this sensitivity will contribute greatly to predicting the effects of climate change on Antarctic food webs, as the Adelie penguin is an important predator in the marine ecosystem.

  6. LARISSA (Larsen Ice Shelf System Antarctica) is a multidisciplinary project to study the region of the spectacular Larsen Ice Shelf collapse in 2002.  The project combines ice-core paleoclimate science, marine geology, glaciology, oceanography, and marine ecology to address the changing environment in the past and present with an eye to understanding what lies ahead in the rapidly warming Antarctic Peninsula region.  The emplacement of high-precision GPS stations in the bedrock at locations on the western side of the Peninsula this year will set the stage for a major ship- and aircraft-based field effort next year.  Data from the GPS stations will allow determination of the rates of rebound of the Earth’s surface since the large glacial mass believed to have been centered on the Peninsula has retreated.  This, in turn, will aid in understanding the past climate of the region in addition to reducing uncertainties in GRACE satellite gravity-based measurements of current ice loss from the region that contributes to sea-level rise.  This element of the LARISSA project is synergistic with the international POLENET project.7

  7. Pine Island Glacier Ice Shelf. The Pine Island Glacier is thinning and accelerating. The hypothesized cause is that warm ocean water is melting the underside of the ice shelf. This decreases the “back pressure” from the ice shelf that helps to hold the glacier in place. This project seeks to directly measure the interaction between ocean water and the underside of the floating ice shelf at the end of the glacier. Researchers hope that by monitoring the evolution of various water masses beneath this ice shelf and by simultaneously measuring atmospheric conditions and ice motion, a more detailed cause-and-effect analysis of the observed glacial degradation can be developed.8

  8. Seismograph.  The world’s quietest location for an earthquake detector is 8 kilometers from the South Pole, 300 meters beneath the ice sheet surface.  Completed in 2002, the station is detecting vibrations four times smaller than those recorded previously.  Other seismographs have been in place since 1957, and long-term, high-latitude data have helped to prove that the Earth’s solid inner core spins faster than the rest of the planet.  Also, Antarctica is the continent with the fewest earthquakes, so the new station will record small regional earthquakes, leading to new insights into the Antarctic Plate.9

  9. West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide.  This project, a collaboration among several research teams, will collect a 3,400-meter-deep ice core in West Antarctica.  The main objectives are to develop the most detailed record of greenhouse gases possible for the last 100,000 years; to determine if the climate changes during the last 100,000 years were initiated by changes in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere; investigate the past and future stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet; and to investigate the biology of deep ice.  This is the third season of deep drilling with the DISC Drill.  The project will drill 24 hours per day, 6 days per week.  The project team will resume drilling at 1,500 meters and will pack the brittle ice collected last season and prepare it for transport back to McMurdo where it will be stored until it is shipped north on the resupply vessel.10

  10. The Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) is a multi-year program designed to develop special sensors and research platforms for investigating ice thickness and to use these sensors and platforms to produce ice-thickness data.  Researchers will survey along and across the Thwaites Glacier flow in three regions of interest – the transition from interior ice-sheet flow to rapid basal sliding; one or two locations in the main body of the glacier; and at  the grounding line of the glacier.  They also will conduct high-resolution, three-dimensional surveys above the transition and within the main body of the glacier.  These surveys will be repeated within a season and, if possible, repeated after 1 year to monitor changes in bed properties.  Starting at the WAIS Divide camp, the research team will conduct an oversnow traverse along the Thwaites Glacier.  Using snowmobiles, they will tow sleds containing camp and science equipment.  A Tucker Sno-Cat will tow sleds, a shothole drill, and a compressor. A full geophysical characterization, including sediment properties and thickness, water layer thickness, and possibly bed roughness will aid in the numerical modeling. The work will take place at two locations on the glacier, where researchers hope to collect enough data to generate a three-dimensional image of the bed and its properties.11

  11. AGAP (Antarctica’s Gamburtsev Province).  This project explores the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains, the world’s last unknown mountain range.  Buried beneath miles-thick East Antarctic Ice Sheet, the mountains will be mapped and characterized with aerogeophysical and seismic methods.  The project’s goal is to understand how the mountains formed and their relationship to development of the ice sheet.  The project is led by the United States and involves scientists and logistics support from the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, China, and Japan.  During the last two field seasons, 26 stations have been deployed.  This season, they will service 8 stations, move two USAP stations and demobilize 16 stations so that they can be moved to Byrd Field Camp to be used by the POLENET project.12

  12. PoleNet (Polar Observing Network).  This project measures current motion of the antarctic plate in response to tectonic forces and ice sheet loading. The project will ultimately lead to more precise measurement of the changes in the mass of the antarctic ice sheet in response to global warming.  The project is led by the United States and involves scientists and logistics support from 20 other countries including New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Italy, China, and Germany.  This austral summer GPS/Seismic and GPS-only stations will be installed along the southern Transantarctic Mountains, in Marie Byrd Land, and in the Thurston Islands sectors of West Antarctica.  Besides visiting some sites to collect data, they will deploy a transect of seismic sensors on the ice sheet between Marie Byrd Land and the Whitmore Mountains.13

  13. Surface carbon dioxide in the Drake Passage.  The Southern Ocean is an important part of the global carbon budget, and the Drake Passage is the narrowest place through which the Antarctic Circumpolar Current travels.  This chokepoint is an efficient site to measure the latitudinal gradients of gas exchange, and the research icebreaker Laurence M. Gould will support a project to measure dissolved and total CO2, providing data that, with satellite images, will enable estimates of the net production and export of carbon by oceanic biota.14

  14. CONCORDIASI.  CONCORDIASI, part of the International Polar Year/The Observing System Research and Predictability Experiment (IPY/THORPEX) cluster of research activities, is composed of ten projects with researchers from Canada, France, Germany, Iceland, Norway, United Kingdom, and the U.S. The goals of the project are to document the state of the climate system and the nature and extent of climate change and to improve understanding and models of the forcing mechanisms, thresholds, and feebacks that control the climate system.  Twenty long-duration stratospheric balloons will be launched near McMurdo Station by the French space agency and will carry instruments to perform in situ and remote measurements of the atmosphere. These measurements will be performed in conjunction with those taken by satellite-borne instruments and radiosonde observations at various antarctic stations.15

  15. Atmosphere-Ocean-Ice Interaction in a coastal polynya.  Polynyas are ice-free areas that often persist in the sea ice surrounding Antarctica.  To gain a more detailed understanding of the role that a polynya has in producing latent-heat type sea ice and in forming dense ocean bottom waters, researchers will characterize the lower atmosphere properties, air-sea surface heat fluxes and corresponding ocean depth profiles in polynyas, especially when winds are strong.  To do this they will use an instrumented uninhabited aircraft system to observe safely the interaction of light and strong katabatic wind fields with the Terra Nova Bay polynya waters during the late winter and early summer.16

  16. Antarctic Artists and Writers Program.  Five artists and writers will deploy to Antarctica this season between November and February. Four projects will based in the McMurdo area and one will travel to South Pole Station.17

  17. International Polar Year Education Projects.  Three projects, funded under the IPY education program, will work in Antarctica during 2009-2010 austral summer.  Two will work in and around Palmer Station.  The remaining project, a film project making a documentary for Discovery Channel and the British Broadcasting Company, will be based at McMurdo and will film at field camps and the South Pole.

  18. Ice Coring Drilling Services.  This project, one of the technical services in support of Antarctic science, provides ice core drilling to the U.S. Antarctic Program and NSF’s Arctic Research Program.18

End Notes
1 For each project with an NSF grant, a description including contact information and grant amount is in the Foundation’s grants database, http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/.  U.S. Antarctic Program participants also can request access to the 2009-2010 Science Planning Summary, United States Antarctic Program, which describes all projects.
2 http://pole.uchicago.edu/
3 http://www.icecube.wisc.edu
4 http://bicep.caltech.edu/public/
5 LTER network:  http://lternet.edu/; McMurdo LTER:  http://huey.colorado.edu/LTER/; Palmer LTER:  http://iceflo.icess.ucsb.edu:8080/ice_hp.php?
6 http://www.homepage.montana.edu/~rgarrott/index.htm
7 http://www.hamilton.edu/news/exp/LARISSA/index.html
8 http://pigiceshelf.gsfc.nasa.gov/
9 http://www.iris.washington.edu/about/GSN/
10 http://waisdivide.unh.edu/
11 https://www.cresis.ku.edu/
12 http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/research/marine-geology-geophysics/agap-exploring-gamburtsev-subglacial-mountains-antarctica-during-
13 http://www.polenet.org/
14 http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/res/pi/CO2/
15 http://www.eol.ucar.edu/deployment/field-deployments/field-projects/concordiasi-1
16 http://cires.colorado.edu/news/press/2009/polynyaCassano.html
17 http://www.nsf.gov/od/opp/antarct/artist_writer/fy09awards.jsp
18 http://icedrill.org/
 
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