The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report citing the detrimental loss of sea ice sheets in the Arctic due to global warming echoes what many in the scientific community have been saying for years. Now researchers at The University of Texas at San Antonio's Department of Earth and Environmental Science are turning their attention to the South Pole to find out if global warming is having similar effects in the frigid Antarctic region.
UTSA Earth and Environmental Science Assistant Professor Hongjie Xie and doctoral student Burcu Cicek are analyzing data collected in December following a two-week trip to the region. The pair were part of an international expedition that included scientists and educators from the United States, Chile and Sweden.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the 6,000 mile trip which was designed to allow scientists to collect data aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden during transit from Punta Arenas, Chile to the United States' McMurdo Research Station on the Antarctic continent, south of New Zealand. The Oden was chartered by NSF to break through the ice and create a 25-mile long shipping channel that would allow for the delivery of annual supplies to NSF's McMurdo Research Station. On route to Antarctica, the ship passed through 1,700 miles of extensive sea ice cover that surrounds the continent annually.
"We now know what the sea ice really looks like as far as its thickness and concentration and now we can compare the data collected to what we see in satellite imagery," said Xie.
During the journey, Xie and Cicek made visual observations of the sea ice for their own research and also transmitted meteorological data regularly into the world weather observing network for a variety of factors including water and air temperatures, wind speed and direction, visibility, cloud cover and atmospheric pressure.
"As a student it was an amazing once in a lifetime experience getting to observe scientists from different countries as they conducted their own research studies," said Cicek.
Other ongoing projects included observations of seals, penguins and seabirds; biological activity in the sea water; and temperature and salinity measurements into the ocean depths.
Now with one trip to the Antarctic under their belt, Xie and Cicek are enlisting the help of world-renowned sea ice expert Stephen Ackley to assist in the analysis of the data in UTSA's Laboratory for Remote Sensing and Geoinformatics. Ackley, with more than 30 years as a government scientist and educator, joined the research team last year as a UTSA research associate professor and has more than a dozen trips to both the Arctic and Antarctic to his credit. His outstanding contribution to sea ice research was recognized in 2004 when the US Board of Geographical Names honored him by naming Ackley Point, a geographic feature in Antarctica, after him.
"In the Antarctic, we are seeing some regional increases in the sea ice along with regional decreases," said Ackley. "If you look at the totality of it, it appears as if it hasn't changed very much over the last 30 years, but it has. Even though we're only seeing these regional changes and not a systemic decline in the amount of ice cover, it is still significant in terms of the way the regions are responding and we're finding that it's linked to global change in the atmosphere."
The Antarctic trip, the first for both Xie and Cicek is not the last one planned for the UTSA research team. In September, Ackley plans to take more students and faculty from the Department of Earth and Environmental Science's Laboratory for Remote Sensing and Geoinformatics on the US icebreaker NB Palmer for a two month trip to the Antarctic sea ice.