News Release 95-78
Current Antarctic Research Targets the Sun, Melting Ice and Dinosaurs
November 2, 1995
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A giant balloon will circle Antarctica carrying a telescope trained on the sun, geologists will seek dinosaur remains entombed in Antarctic rocks, and scientists on snowmobiles will search for a prime site to drill a deep ice core to unlock West Antarctica's climate history. These studies are among the 136 U.S. science projects now underway during the 1995-96 Antarctic research season, supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and based mainly out of three research stations during Antarctica's summer, from October through February.
Almost three-quarters of the research program -- spanning astronomy and astrophysics, earth science, glaciology, oceanography, atmospheric science, and biology -- is supported out of McMurdo Station, located at sea level on Ross Island, and at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, high up on the ice cap. Another quarter of the research is conducted from Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula and on two research vessels.
ANTARCTIC RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS THIS SEASON
- Flare Genesis Probes the Sun
In December or January, one of the world's largest solar telescopes will be lofted into the Antarctic sky beneath a huge balloon, which will circle the continent in a steady wind pattern. With 24-hour daylight, the telescope will be able to peer at the sun nonstop -- imaging sunspots with unprecedented resolution, and mapping associated magnetic fields believed to cause solar flares. The research team led by David Rust of Johns Hopkins University aims to understand how magnetic fields at the sun's surface emerge, coalesce, unravel, and finally blow up as solar flares. They hope the work will lead to reliable forecasts of both solar activity as well as the arrival of shock waves and atomic particles from the sun. Excellent quality images are expected to be available shortly after the flight.
- Neutrino Visions in Antarctic Ice
Drilling resumes at the South Pole to complete AMANDA, the largest neutrino detector on earth and part of the vanguard in the new field of neutrino astronomy. The Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array is looking for high-energy neutrinos sub-atomic particles that are spawned by supernovae, pulsars, neutron stars, or other sources beyond our galaxy, with the aim to one day map such neutrino sources in space. AMANDA, a joint enterprise of the University of Wisconsin, the University of California (Berkeley and Irvine), the University of Stockholm, the University of Upsala, and the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY), has already been watching the sky for supernovae since early this year.
As construction of the array continues, a hot water drill will plumb the ice; then, photomultiplier tubes, like beads on a string, will be lowered one-to-two kilometers down into the holes, which will close up as the water refreezes. Six new strings are being added this year to the four already installed. The ice at the South Pole has proven to have singular clarity for detecting the bluish flashes of light -- Cherenkov radiation -- that tell of a neutrino collision.
- Hot Vents in Polar Seas
Researchers aboard NSF's icebreaking research vessel, the Nathaniel B. Palmer, have just completed a survey of the complex ocean bottom in the Bransfield Strait at the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula. Geophysicists Lawrence Lawver of University of Texas-Austin, and Gary Klinkhammer, Oregon State University, have explored a unique region where continental crust is rifting apart, perhaps like the Gulf of California opened in its earlier stages of evolution. Hydrothermal vents have been found near this rift, where plumes of hot water with dissolved minerals are spewing forth, possibly from natural smokestacks called "black smokers." The study will add to knowledge of volcanic processes and mineral formation in a rift zone. Unusual communities of deep-sea life, known to inhabit hot vents, could also live here, but have not yet been found at these high polar latitudes. (For cruise reports, see: WWW.IG.UTEXAS.EDU/NEWS/BRANSFIELD/INDEX.HTML.)
- A Hunt for Dinosaurs
In the Transantarctic Mountains, a team headed by Augustana College geologist William Hammer will survey remote mountaintops protruding from the ice sheet for fossils of mammals and reptiles, including dinosaurs. In much of the continent, fossils and rocks are concealed beneath ice that can be miles thick. Exposed rocks in the study area near the Shackleton Glacier, however, offer excellent prospects to yield animal remains from the middle Triassic to the lower Jurassic, similar to the dinosaurs and other fossils recovered in the past near the Beardmore Glacier. The vertebrate fossils offer insight on how these animals evolved at high latitudes and what climates were like when they lived.
- Counting Tree Rings in Antarctica's Fossil Forests
The Shackleton Glacier region harbors abundant plant fossils, including remains of ancient forests, mineralized peat deposits, and pollen. A team headed by paleobotanist Edith Taylor, University of Kansas, will collect and describe in detail this ancient flora, helping to reconstruct what the Antarctic was like during Permian and Triassic times about 200280 million years ago. Also based at this season's Shackleton camp, a special field base for research coordinated by Ohio State University geologist David Elliott, other geologists will be seeking to fill in the picture of how past environments and life evolved in Antarctica. Until the late Mesozoic, about 100 million years ago, Antarctica sat at the center of the supercontinent of Gondwanaland -- a history these studies will flesh out.
- West Antarctic Ice: Stable or Not?
West Antarctica's ice cover, drained in part by dynamic, fast-moving ice streams flowing into the Ross Sea, is the largest ice sheet on earth resting well below sea level. The history of the ice, and its potential for future "collapse," or rapid disintegration, continues as the focus of a multi-year, multidisciplinary research effort. In places, the ice sheet shows rapid and dramatic changes that could portend a rapid rise in sea level across the globe -- or may not.
Geophysicists Donald Blankenship, University of Texas Austin, Robin Bell, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Carol Finn, U.S. Geological Survey, spearhead an effort to fly an aircraft filled with geophysical instruments over the ice streams. They will use the data to model ice sheet behavior, as will a University of Wisconsin group. Down on the ice surface, a traverse team headed by University of New Hampshire glaciologist Paul Mayewski is extracting ice cores and examining them for clues to climates past -- ultimately looking for the best site for a deep ice core.
- Tiny Extraterrestrials at the South Pole?
Antarctica's ice is a famous storehouse for meteorites, ranging from large to microscopic. A team led by Susan Taylor of the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory plans to begin collecting millions of micrometeorites from the new well that provides water for South Pole Station, a project that will last five years. As the ice melts in the well, meteorites are postulated to concentrate at the bottom of the hollow, promising what may be the richest and best-dated source of dust from space.
- An Antarctic Lake at First Light
After the long Antarctic winter gives way to the earliest rays of the sun, life in the unique, permanently frozen lakes of Antarctica's Dry Valleys begins to unlimber. This August, a team led by Montana State University biologist John Priscu travelled to the lakes to watch photosynthesis begin, the initial step in understanding the dynamics of microbe assemblages (cyanobacteria and eubacteria) living in the ice of at least seven Dry Valley lakes. The study will help illuminate the dynamics of carbon and nitrogen in the valleys, and complement existing studies of microbial communities in sea ice. Such life in Antarctica may be analogous to Mars, which is thought to have had liquid water in the past. Microbial life may still linger in the ice and rocks on that planet.
Lynn T. Simarski, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email: email@example.com
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