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International Trans-Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE)

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U.S. scientists traveled 800 miles across Antarctic Ice Sheet to study global warming

February 10, 2003


Background. The National Science Foundation (NSF), through its Office of Polar Programs, provides financial and logistical support for the U.S. component of the International Trans-Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE). NSF is an independent federal agency which supports research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF also manages the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP).

Paul Mayewski, of the University of Maine's Institute for Quaternary and Climate Studies, is the principal investigator for US ITASE.

The 19-nation International Trans Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE) hopes to establish how atmospheric conditions over the last 200 years are reflected in the composition of the Antarctic ice sheet's upper layers. US ITASE is a component of the international effort to which Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.K. have all have contributed.

In May 1996, NSF supported a workshop to plan the United States' contribution to ITASE. Because of the long-standing U.S. research effort in West Antarctica, US ITASE chose to focus its activities there. At the workshop, participants developed a multi-disciplinary research plan to integrate meteorology, remote sensing, ice coring and surface glaciology, and geophysics.

The continent of Antarctica is roughly the size of the United States and Mexico combined. However, because of its remote location and harsh climate it has been the focus of scientific research for only a little over 40 years. The U.S. activities in Antarctica are part of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The USAP's goals are: to understand the Antarctic and its associated ecosystems; to understand the region's effects on (and responses to) global processes such as climate; and to use Antarctica's unique features for scientific research that cannot be conducted as well elsewhere. Among the scientific disciplines encompassed by this broad mandate are astronomy, atmospheric sciences, biology, earth sciences, environmental science, geology, glaciology, marine biology, oceanography, and geophysics.

Scientific Questions. While numerous ice cores, or cylinders of ice, have been recovered from various locations in Antarctica, few provide well-dated, detailed records covering the last two hundred years over broad regions of the Antarctic continent. Consequently, the U.S. and several other nations have embarked on a series of ice-coring activities, with the U.S. focused on two projects in West Antarctica: the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Initiative (WAIS) and ITASE.

The WAIS program is a multi-disciplinary study whose aims are to understand the history and dynamics of the West Antarctic ice sheet, to determine the climatic record contained in the ice, and to assess its potential for changing sea level in the future. Should such an event occur, the total rise in sea level would be approximately 20 ft. which could drastically impact the coasts of the world. Within the context of WAIS, US ITASE hopes to accomplish six major scientific objectives to understand environmental change in West Antarctic.

  • Understanding the mass balance of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Is the ice sheet growing or shrinking? Numerical models of the ocean and atmospheric system suggest that increases in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could lead to a warming of the atmosphere, which could, in turn, dramatically increase the precipitation at extreme southern latitudes;

  • Understanding the influence that major atmospheric circulation systems and oceanic circulation have on the moisture flux over West Antarctica;

  • Learning how the temperature, snow accumulation rate and atmospheric circulation vary in West Antarctica over a variety of time scales, including seasonally, annually, decadal and centennial scales. What controls this variability?

  • Discovering the frequency, magnitude and effect (local to global) of any extreme climate events recorded in West Antarctica;

  • Understanding what the impact is of human-caused activities such as ozone depletion and pollution on the climate and atmospheric chemistry of West Antarctica; and

  • Understanding the variation in biogeochemical cycling of sulphur, nitrogen and carbon, as recorded in West Antarctica over the last 200 years or more.

2002-2003 research season. This year's ITASE research will encompass the first overland crossing of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet from Byrd Station, in the middle of the ice sheet, to the South Pole, in 45 years.

Traveling on a sled train pulled by two tracked Caterpiller Challenger 55 tractors, similar to bulldozers, the scientific party will travel more than 800 miles, passing through the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and over the 8,000-foot high Hercules Dome on its way to NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station which is at an elevation of over 9,000 feet.

At each sampling site along the traverse route, the researchers will dig ten to 12-foot-deep snow pits, sampling the ice, collecting snow and drilling three-inch-diameter cores that penetrate more than 200 feet into the ice.

Over three previous seasons, the US ITASE team has traveled roughly 3,500 kilometers and collected enough information to yield a detailed picture of the region's climate. Although data analysis is in its early stages, scientists expect that US ITASE will produce the most comprehensive record of temperature, precipitation and atmospheric circulation of any continent on Earth over the past 200 to 1,000 years.

For more information, see the US ITASE Web site:

To view the routes of the US ITASE traverses, see:

Contributors to the international ITASE project have filed national reports on their progress at:


Media Contacts
Peter West, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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