Scientists supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) will attempt to "tag" one of the largest icebergs ever recorded to track its movements in the Southern Ocean while other researchers will conduct an overland crossing to study the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet during the 2000-2001 Antarctic research season, which gets underway this month.
Even in Antarctica, computers and other sophisticated instruments have become standard tools for scientific investigation; but these two excursions echo the expeditionary tradition of the "Heroic Age" of Antarctic exploration of the early 20th Century. They are the most dramatic of the wide ranging sophisticated scientific studies NSF will support in Antarctica this austral summer. Those studies include projects in the earth sciences, glaciology, biology, oceanography, meteorology, astrophysics and aeronomy.
"The first research season of the new century promises to be both as scientifically productive and as challenging as any in recent memory," said Karl Erb, the director of NSF's office of polar programs, who also heads the U.S. Antarctic Program.
Flights by the New York Air National Guard and U.S. Air Force will deliver about 3,000 researchers and logistics personnel into McMurdo Station, NSF's scientific hub on the continent, between October and February.
Science conducted this season will range from examination of the microscopic - for example, studying the ecology of microorganisms in perpetually snow-free Dry Valleys - to investigations on a galactic scale, as telescopes based at the Pole piece together an image of the early universe.
Aerial radar surveys also will begin this season to map Lake Vostok, a suspected body of water buried under thousands of meters of ice in the interior of the continent. The radar surveys are a precursor to possible exploration of the lake itself. The waters of the lake may contain microbial life far different from known species elsewhere on earth, while sediments at the lake bottom may yield information about Earth's ancient climate.
The expedition to iceberg B-15, meanwhile, highlights the immensity of Antarctica which awed such pioneering explorers as Ernest Shackleton and Robert F. Scott. When it calved from the Ross Ice Shelf earlier this year, the berg which has since splintered into several pieces originally was estimated to be twice the size of the state of Delaware. Researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin expect to affix sensors on the berg to study the movements of the ice in the Southern Ocean.
The traverse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will be undertaken as part of the U.S. International Trans Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE). As part of a larger international effort, U.S. ITASE seeks to understand what changes in the mass of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may be taking place, how the climate varies on the ice sheet, and what climactic events may be recorded in the ice.
This will also be the first season that Raytheon Polar Services Corp. (RPSC), of Englewood, Colo., provides the logistical support to the USAP under a 10-year contract.
"Although Raytheon Polar Services Company assumed control of the USAP contract on April 1st of this year, the real test of the effectiveness of the contract transition will be our performance in doing everything that is required to ensure top quality mission support on the ice," said Tom Yelvington, RPSC program manager. "We are thrilled to have this opportunity and believe our management and employees have the talent and commitment to meet the challenge."
Highlights of NSF's 2000-2001 Antarctic Research Season
The descriptions include the name and institutional affiliation of the project's principal investigator and the program manager in NSF's Office of Polar Programs.
Lake Vostok aerial survey:
The Support Office for Aerogeophysical Research (SOAR), an NSF-funded project at the University of Texas at Austin's Institute for Geophysics, will use a specially equipped Twin Otter aircraft to map a 330 kilometer (205 mile) by 165 (102 mile) kilometer grid over subglacial Lake Vostok, deep in the Antarctic interior.
The lake, which is the size of Lake Ontario in North America, has been buried beneath thousands of meters beneath the ice sheet for millions of years and may contain microbial life, which could be dramatically different from known species. The radar survey would be a necessary precursor to any international effort to explore the subglacial lake. Careful evaluation of clean drilling technologies would be required in subsequent years before method can be devised to prevent contamination of the suspected lake.
Principal investigator: Robin Bell, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University
NSF Program manager: Scott Borg
Degree Angular Scale Interferometer (DASI):
An iterferometric array of 13 microwave antennas has been measuring cosmic background radiation temperature variations in a fairly large area of the sky above South Pole for the past several months. The results appear to have produced some of the most sensitive measurements that are among the most sensitive ever made and which will help unravel the mysteries of the early universe and the nature of the dark matter and energy that many scientists believe constitutes most of the universe. This austral summer, large aluminum "ground shields" will be added to DASI that will allow the array to cover a much bigger area of the sky with reduced noise.
Principal Investigator: John Carlstrom, University of Chicago
NSF Program manager: John Lynch
Southern Ocean Global Ecosystems Dynamics (SO GLOBEC):
More than 15 research teams will use NSF's icebreaking research vessel Nathaniel B Palmer and the ice-strengthened research ship Lawrence M. Gould to conduct a two-year study to understand how marine animals respond to natural and human-caused climate change. The vessels will cruise through Marguerite Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula from mid-March to mid-August, 2001.
Principal investigator: Eileen Hofmann, Old Dominion University
NSF Program managers: Polly Penhale/Bernhard Lettau
Expedition to Iceberg B-15:
Researchers will attempt to place devices on the iceberg that will allow them to track its movements.
Principal investigator: Douglas MacAyeal, University of Chicago
NSF Program manager: Julie Palais
South Pole Construction Project:
Modernization and environmental improvements at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station continue this season. The existing station is 20 years old and has exceeded its design life. The South Pole Modernization Project (SPMP) will replace the existing station by 2005. The project remains on schedule and within budget. Environmental upgrades to the station also have been or will be completed in the 2000-2001 season.
Environmental upgrades: A new power plant is scheduled to become operational this season, supplying up to one kilowatt of electrical energy to the station. Also completed are a new fuel storage facility and a new garage and shop facility.
Modernization: The modernization of the station began last season with the construction of a vertical link and tower between the sub-surface new power plant, garage/shop and fuel-storage facilities. Steel construction for housing and food-service wings of the new elevated station is scheduled for this summer. The wings will be completed in the austral winter.
NSF South Pole Program Contact:
Jerry Marty, South Pole construction, operations and maintenance manager