News Release 98-063
1998-99 Antarctic Research Season Highlights
October 7, 1998
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Research ranging from sea floor sediments to the origins of the universe will be conducted during the 1998-99 austral summer research season in Antarctica. Approximately 130 research projects 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 research stations-McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole and Palmer-as well as two research vessels, the Nathaniel B. Palmer and a new vessel, the Laurence M. Gould. The USAP also collaborates with other countries' 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 will deploy to Antarctica. Highlights of the current season include:
- CAPE ROBERTS PROJECT: The Cape Roberts project, an international effort involving scientists from the United States, New Zealand, Italy, the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany, will attempt to collect cores from the Ross Sea floor. The team will drill through sea ice and about 170 meters of water into the underlying sea floor. Ice at least 1.5 meters thick is needed to serve as a drilling platform. Sediments and fossils in the drill core should help provide information about conditions 25-70 million years ago, and fill in gaps missing from knowledge of the Earth's climate. During this interval of time, the first ice sheets in Antarctica began to form. This period is particularly important as it covers a period in Earth's history when the earth last experienced temperatures as warm as those that are expected over the next few centuries due to greenhouse warming. This year is crucial to the project, which has been plagued by poor sea-ice conditions in the two previous seasons. Conditions look promising this season.
- SULFUR AT THE SOUTH POLE: Microscopic sulfur particles in the atmosphere are some of the major components in climate change scenarios-both naturally produced and man-made sulfur compounds reflect solar radiation, produce atmospheric haze and acid rain, and affect ozone depletion. Sulfate particles are very good at acting as condensation nuclei for water vapor, creating clouds. Researchers will seek to improve understanding of the atmospheric chemistry of sulfur compounds (some of which are produced by oceanic phytoplankton) and the climatic interpretation of sulfur-based signals in Antarctic ice core records.
- BALLOONING OVER ANTARCTICA: A major long-duration balloon flight will circle the continent gathering data at an altitude of approximately 120,000 feet for about two weeks before being parachuted to the ice for recovery. The balloon, supplied and launched by NASA, has a volume of about 30 million cubic feet and can lift payloads heavier than a ton. The project will measure, with unprecedented sensitivity, the temperature variations across the sky of the cosmic microwave background radiation. Details about these relic photons left over from the beginnings of the universe will help scientists discriminate with exquisite sensitivity among various models of the cosmos.
- FOSSIL FINDS: In conjunction with the Argentine Antarctic Institute, researchers will be excavating Mosasaur and Plesiosaur fossils and searching for Hadrosaur fossils on Vega Island near the Antarctic peninsula. The Mosasaur and Plesiosaur fossils will provide important information about this class of marine dinosaurs and about the geographic distribution of these marine reptiles during the age of dinosaurs. Last year, this team discovered the only Hadrosaur fossils outside the Americas. Hadrosaurs were large land-dwelling, plant-eating dinosaurs and the Antarctic fossils are important because they demonstrate a significant land bridge between the Americas and Antarctica. They are also evidence of a complex and extensive plant ecosystem on land in the region which was then at a high southern latitude, not unlike its current position.
- WEST ANTARCTIC ICE SHEET: The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which rests on thin continental crust, may be an important contributor to a future global warming-induced sea level rise. A number of studies are adding to our knowledge of the history of the ice sheet, which has implications for understanding the Earth's past climatic conditions and for models predicting future climate changes. At Siple Dome, an enormous semi-circular ridge of ice between two quickly flowing glaciers or "ice streams", a 1,000-meter ice core will be drilled and the layers of snow, somewhat like rings in a tree, will be examined for information about past climate conditions. Also at Siple Dome, researchers will try to determine the dynamics of ice flow-a topic critical to understanding the stability of the ice sheet. Researchers will also examine the glacial geologic history of the Transantarctic Mountains. Others will study the deposits from volcanoes in West Antarctica attempting to determine the past ice sheet elevation by dating imbedded volcanic rocks.
- A SEAL'S-EYE VIEW: For an air-breathing mammal, seals forage for food in an unforgiving environment-under water covered in ice. Researchers will attach a small video system and a data logger to Weddell seals' backs and measure oxygen consumption during dives to determine how seals hunt for food and how efficient they are at doing so. Using the data gathered, the researchers will conduct computer analyses of data on depth, swimming speed, and bearing, enabling them to create a 3-D path of the seals' dives and correlate that information with video of the seals' heads and the immediate environment in front of the seal. Other gathered information will allow them to calculate how efficient the seals' foraging strategies are in different environments and when hunting for various types of prey.
- ULTRAVIOLET CRUISE: In this multi-disciplinary cruise, researchers will study the effects of solar ultraviolet radiation on bacterioplankton, phytoplankton, zooplankton as well the photochemistry of bacterial growth processes in the ocean. They will examine how biological responses to ultraviolet radiation are affected by ozone, explore interactions with marine viruses, and study the interplay within the food web.
- INTERACTIONS BETWEEN THE ATMOSPHERE AND THE OCEAN: This season will be the final field season for ROAVERRS (Research on Ocean-Atmosphere Variability and Ecosystem Response in the Ross Sea), a multidisciplinary study of the atmospheric and oceanic interaction conducted on board the Nathaniel B. Palmer. The research will lead to a better understanding of the polar marine ecosystem in response to climate variables. Ship-based scientists will measure: wind and air temperature; ice cover, ice movement, and sea surface temperature; small-scale water circulation in the top layers of the sea; organic materials within the ocean circulation; and the amount, distribution and respiration rates of plants and animals on the sea floor. Combined with meteorological data, scientists expect they can monitor changes in airflow patterns in the southwestern Ross Sea to determine their influence on oceanographic and biological patterns.
- CONSTRUCTION AT POLE: Construction for the new South Pole station will intensify, focusing on the completion of vehicle maintenance and shop facilities and the replacement of rubber fuel bladders with steel tanks. These safety and environmental upgrades 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 its effective utility.
- GOULD: This is the first full season of the R/V Laurence M. Gould, after several initial cruises last season. The research vessel will embark on cruises in support of ultraviolet research, Long Term Ecological Research, marine geology and geophysics as well as providing logistic support to Palmer station. The Gould is an ABS A1 icebreaker (capable of breaking ice one foot thick) and is 230 feet long with a displacement of 3,411 tons. It was built in LaRose Louisiana and is owned and operated by Edison Chouest Offshore Corporation (ECO). The Gould is under a charter with Antarctic Support Associates (ASA). Both USAP Icebreaking Research Vessels-the Gould and the Nathaniel B. Palmer--are owned and operated by ECO under charter to ASA.
Beth Gaston, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email: email@example.com
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