Working on the ice
06 January 2011
Aberystwyth scientist leads polar expedition
Scientists from the Universities of Aberystwyth and Leeds are teaming up and heading off on an Antarctic polar expedition this month to learn more about the climate history of the region.
Led by Professor Neil Glasser from the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University, the team will be heading to part of the coldest, windiest, highest and driest continent on Earth to hunt for clues that will tell us more about how the glaciers and ice sheets of the north-eastern Antarctic Peninsula behaved in past climates and what we can expect in the future.
The Antarctic Peninsula has suffered above average warming over the past half-century, with around a 2.5°C temperature increase since 1950. This warming is causing glaciers and ice shelves to melt, releasing large volumes of fresh water into the oceans which not only raises sea level, but also influences deep sea circulation and regional climate.
However, scientists do not fully understand the relationship between air and sea temperature, and the melting of ice. Therefore it is difficult for them to assess whether the melting being observed at the moment is unprecedented in the context of geological time.
To address these outstanding questions, the team will collect samples of rock to date their exposure to cosmic radiation and thus to analyse how the glaciers and ice have retreated since the last ice age, around 20,000 years ago.
“The collapse of Antarctic ice shelves is largely thought to be caused by warming of the atmosphere, but it appears that changes in sea temperature and ice-shelf structure are also important,” said Professor Glasser.
“With the climate expected to warm in the future, it is important for us to understand how Antarctic glaciers and ice shelves behaved in the past so we can predict how they will react in years to come if temperatures continue to rise.”
The team of three scientists and one British Antarctic Survey (BAS) field assistant will be dropped off by the Royal Research Ship Ernest Shackleton on James Ross Island, just off the Antarctic Peninsula. They will be heavily laden with equipment including four quad bikes, two trailers, scientific equipment, tents and enough food and fuel to last three months.
“We’re expecting the expedition to be very exciting and challenging due to a quite different style of operations,” said Dr Jonathan Carrivick from the University of Leeds, who will take part in the trip. “Normally when researchers work in Antarctica they operate from a research ship or at an established station, whereas we will be dropped off with all our kit and left for two months with just radio contact to the rest of the world.”
The team will collect around 100 boxes of rock samples, which they will bring back to Britain to study in a laboratory. They will analyse the rock mineralogy, geochemistry and isotopic character to determine when they were first exposed to cosmic rays; to calculate when ice cover disappeared from that particular site. They are also planning to map a 600km² ice-free area of the island to allow them to generate a 3D terrain model.
Professor Glasser and Dr Carrivick will be joined by Dr Bethan Davies, also from Aberystwyth University, and Alan Hill from BAS. The research is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.