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Author: eliza

This is a seriously huge continent

It’s hard to appreciate the size of a place without experiencing it first hand but I’ll do my best to convey the enormity of Antarctica.

At the end of a hectic week in McMurdo, it was time for our next travel leg: A flight on an LC 130 to WAIS Divide Camp. This flight took 5 hours and the distance we travelled was equivalent to flying from San Antonio, Texas to Eastern Nevada.

Antarctica is much bigger than the USA. Here you can see the USA outline for scale. (original image from NASA)

It’s also worth pointing out that these aren’t normal commercial flights. Instead we fly on ski equipped Air Force planes. Passengers sit in slings against the walls while cargo is piled down the middle. The skis make it possible for the plane to land on the ice instead of a normal runway.

Boarding our flight to WAIS Divide camp
Just after landing at WAIS Divide
Inside an LC 130

You might think that a 5 hr flight over Antarctica would be very scenic but mine wasn’t. Remember that most of the continent is buried under miles of ice. I kept glancing out the window hoping to catch a glimpse of something. Maybe a mountain or some crevassing or a research station. Instead I found that I couldn’t even tell where the ice covered ground met the gray sky. A vast barren white world stretched out in all directions. The view never changed. 

Looking out the window of the plane, I couldn't tell where the ice stopped and the clouds started

While the view was far from captivating, I still found my mind wandering back to scientific papers I’d read over the last few months. I realized that the figures in those papers illustrating ice sheet retreat had taken on a new meaning for me. Instead of just a plot with squiggly lines showing projected sea level rise I was actually looking at the massive glaciers that could melt in my lifetime. Picturing all of this ice melting was hard to comprehend but the massive impact that would have on sea level rise globally was all too real. 

As I stepped off the plane at WAIS Divide I was met by my first real blast of Antarctic cold. I distinctly remember that first stinging breath of air and then my alarm when I realized that my face was completely numb after only a half hour outside. I wasn’t even to our first research site but I think that’s when a realization first hit me and I began to comprehend what I’d really signed on for.

Arriving at WAIS Divide Camp
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Antarctica, an otherworldly journey

I’m back — just done with my long journey from Antarctica back to California — and already my time in Antarctic feels otherworldly. There’s a giant two month gap in my normal life going back to mid November when I departed, but now the pause button has suddenly switched off and normal life resumed. I’m left with the strange feeling that December and January were just erased while simultaneously my head is spinning through recollections of some of the greatest adventures I’ve ever had.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to go to Antarctica for glaciology research, this blog (and the following ones) are for you.

First real life view of McMurdo Station
My previous knowledge of McMurdo Station

Let’s rewind the clock to December 16th, the day after I posted my last blog from McMurdo Station. As I mentioned in that blog, starting the moment you arrive at McMurdo Station you have to go through a huge amount of training. This ranges from information on how the station operates and your role as part of the community to field trainings to prepare you to survive some of the coldest and harshest conditions anywhere on the planet. On top of the crammed training schedules, my field team also had a heap of cargo — both science and camp gear — to organize and pack for the upcoming flights out to our field sites.

This time in McMurdo was also our last days of enjoying actual beds, showers, and indoor heating. Here’s some pictures from my week in McMurdo.

In McMurdo looking out at the sea ice
Looking up at Observation Hill from McMurdo
A view of McMurdo from Hut Point
Another view of the sea ice from Hut Point. Those blobs in the foreground are seals.
One training was a "happy camper" session out on Willy field where we had a mock field camp to prepared for our month at the field site. This was my first night camping in Antarctica.
This is a Scott tent. I slept in this same type of tent for the next month at our field site!
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McMurdo Station Finally

After 10 days of delays in Christchurch, we finally made it to McMurdo Station and in doing so, I stepped foot in Antarctica for the first time!

Internet is very slow here at the station so unfortunately I can’t upload pictures to my blogs. Follow me on instagram (https://www.instagram.com/mostlyfrozen/) and twitter (https://twitter.com/KeepingIceCool) for pictures and more frequent updates!

We will be at the station for about 1 week while we go through training in field safety, emergency survival, and crevasses rescue. When the training is complete, hopefully the weather will be good enough for us to fly to WAIS divide camp and then onto our research site on Thwaites Glacier. 

We should be doing field work at that site until the end of January (about 4 to 5 weeks camping on the glacier!). During that time, I will be conducting radar surveys using a snowmobile to pull the scientific equipment along 20 km transects across the glacier.

Internet will be nonexistent in the field so I won’t be able to post much more until I return… maybe one more blog before we fly to our field site depending on weather and internet speed! I should be able to post on Twitter from the field site so check for that. Otherwise I should be back to CA in early February and will post lots of blogs and pictures about the field season then!

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Delays

I wish I was writing this blog from Antarctica but unfortunately I’m still in Christchurch, NZ due to unfavorable landing conditions at McMurdo Station. I’ve been on standby for the last three days and it could still be a while before I can depart. 

I met up with my field team (first time meeting in person!) and on Tuesday we checked in at the US Antarctica Program base to go through training and receive our issued clothing. I had fun trying on big red!

Going through some training at the clothing distribution center

Besides that, I’ve just been exploring Christchurch and trying to soak up all the summer weather here.

Hopefully my next blog will be from the ice! Stay tuned.

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A few days in New Zealand

I’ve had a couple days to explore New Zealand before starting the next leg of my journey to Antarctica. Here are some pictures I’ve taken over the last few days! Some of the highlights were a gorgeous lupin bloom at Lake Takapo, great glacier hiking near Mount Cook, and climbing some peaks near Queenstown. Enjoy all the photos! Tomorrow I report to the US Antarctica Program base in Christchurch for briefings and to pick up my gear at the Clothing Distribution Center. 

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Off to Antarctica!

Exciting news! Tomorrow I’m departing for 2.5 months of research on the Antarctic ice sheet. I will be traveling with a team of three other scientists and two mountaineers to conduct geophysics research on Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. You’ve probably heard about this glacier in the news.

Thwaites Glacier is one of the fastest retreating glaciers in Antarctica and considerable uncertainty remains in projecting it’s future ice loss and contribution to sea level rise. Here’s a video explaining why Thwaites is unstable and why it can raise global sea level.

I will be conducting radar surveys across the Eastern Shear Margin of Thwaites Glacier as part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded TIME project (https://thwaitesglacier.org/projects/time). What is a shear margin? It’s the region where the glacier transitions from flowing very slowly to very quickly. You can think of this region like the bank of a stream. Take a look at the map below of Thwaites Glacier (The glacier drains into the ocean to the left.) See the rapid transitions from blue/green to red? That is the shear margin. The stars mark the field site locations where I will be conducting radar surveys.

Map of Thwaites Glacier with MEaSUREs velocity. Notice TIME1 and TIME2 are the names of the two field sites I will be camped at while conducting research.

Our research aims to study how the Eastern Shear Margin controls the stability and future evolution of Thwaites Glacier. At one site, we will be testing how hydrology influences the behavior and movement of the shear margin. At the other site, we will examine how the bed conditions could influence the flow of the glacier.

Getting there: Thwaites Glacier is one of the most difficult locations to get to in Antarctica. It’s known for particularly bad weather and challenging conditions. 

My journey to Thwaites Glacier starts from the SFO airport. From there I will fly to Christchurch, NZ where the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) offices are located in addition to the NSF offices, warehouse, and distribution center for field gear. After a few days of training and packing in Christchurch with my field team, we will take a US military aircraft to McMurdo station in Antarctica. We will be in McMurdo for a few weeks to prepare our equipment and do field training. From there we will take a flight to WAIS Divide camp, and then a smaller plane to our field site on Thwaites Glacier. Once on the glacier, we will be taking geophysical measurements across the shear margin for 4 to 5 weeks and we will use snowmobiles to traverse between field sites. 

 

I will fly from Christchurch, NZ to McMurdo Station. From there I will travel to WAIS Divide Camp and then to our field sites on Thwaites Glacier!

Similar to my summer in Greenland, we will be camping in tents on the ice while conducting the research. There will be no warm buildings, fresh food, or internet at the research site! There will be (limited) internet at the field stations in Antarctica and I will be taking lots of pictures, videos, and notes along the entire journey so get excited for many blogs to come! If things go according to plans, I should be back to California in early to mid February. 

Stay tuned for more updates in the next few days as I begin my journey down under!

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West Antarctica and its very own workshop

Antarctica is commonly divided into three parts: West Antarctica, East Antarctica, and the Antarctic Peninsula. From space, Antarctica just looks like one vast white landscape and indeed it is all one landmass underneath all the ice, but there are three geographically and climatologically unique parts. On the map below, you might notice the Antarctic Peninsula first. If the Antarctic continent were your fist, the peninsula is the “thumb” reaching up towards the tip of South America. The section on the left below the Antarctic Peninsula is West Antarctica and the massive region to the right is East Antarctica. Cutting the continent in two, and dividing west from east, are the Transantarctic Mountains. Ice to the west of this divide flows west and the opposite happens for ice to the east.

This map shows the major geographical features on the Antarctic continent and the USA and UK research stations to accompany the Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica (LIMA). For more information on LIMA and to access imagery go to: http://lima.usgs.gov

East Antarctica is much bigger than West Antarctica and the ice there is much thicker, reaching over 4.5 km thick in some places. Interior East Antarctica is also the driest and coldest part of the continent.

West Antarctica is thought to be much less stable. This has to do with both the bed topography below the ice and climate forcing. In some places, the ice is so thick it pushes the bedrock below sea level. In parts of West Antarctica where this happens near the edge of the ice sheet, warm sea water can infiltrate at the bed of the ice sheet and into the depression leading to accelerated ice loss. (Note: this mechanism is called the Marine Ice Sheet Instability, look it up). This is one of the reasons why West Antarctica is losing mass the fastest.

ESA–NASA Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise, Shepherd et al 2018

In fact, to research how the unstable West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) will affect future sea level rise and to understand how rapid global climate changes occur, the WAIS initiative was formed. Each year, this multidisciplinary program, brings together scientists from around the world for the week long WAIS Workshop.

This year, the workshop was held in Julian, CA a small desert town about 1.5 hours east of San Diego. While it may have been a bit ironic that it was situated in a desert, the week was spent discussing the latest research on West Antarctica through a series of oral presentation sessions and posters.

I had the opportunity to give a presentation on my research modeling the thermal characteristics at the bed of Thwaites Glacier. 

While most of the conference was spent in conference rooms, we did have one special appearance by a tamed wolf who was actually bred for friendliness as part of a biology study. This was not an official part of the conference but just happened to be taking place at a nearby farm. I have to say getting to pet a friendly wolf pup has now set the bar pretty high for future conferences 🙂

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The lesser known models of SoCal

I spent the last week and a half modeling in Los Angeles. Rather than making my way through Hollywood studios, I spent days glued to my computer screen as I ran model simulations of Antarctica using the ice sheet system model (ISSM) developed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).

Situated in Pasadena, CA on the northern outskirts of the LA area, this NASA campus boasts over 5,000 employees working on everything from glaciology research to the Mars 2020 mission and beyond. Among scientists, I think it’s fair to say that Pasadena beats out Hollywood for its modeling claim to fame. (If you’re curious what all of the upcoming missions are, check out this link: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/missions/)

My research visit was arranged to work with our collaborators who built and continue to develop the ISSM model. Much of my PhD research involves running model simulations of Antarctica so this visit was an opportunity for me to advance my capabilities using ISSM, report on my current research, and discuss the next modeling steps I plan to implement.

Here's an example of a simulation I did showing surface velocity in m/yr

Why run an ice sheet model? We don’t have many tools to explore what the world will be like in the future. Models are one of the few ways we can capture the current physical state and then run experiments into the future to inform ourselves about the impacts of possible climate scenarios. In my case, I run model simulations of Antarctica to examine how climate forcing could affect the stability of the Antarctic ice sheet, especially at the bed of the ice sheet where the thermal state is very important. Models enable us to predict what regions are most vulnerable to collapse and how much sea level could rise. Many of the news reports you’ve probably seen about climate impacts are ultimately from models like ISSM that work to capture the future state we will experience. 

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My summer of melt

I’m sure you’ve seen it. People have been asking me about it. This year Greenland has had record breaking heat and extreme melt, and headlines everywhere have been announcing it. This heated media attention over the last month has yet again put the Arctic and climate change in the spotlight. 

Here's one of the many surface melt streams I saw on the Greenland ice sheet

While I could echo news reports in this blog, I’m not going to. Instead let me add two additional pieces to the story about Greenland and melt. 

Part 1: A first hand account. I’ve only been to Greenland once — this summer — so I have no way of comparing the melt I observed this year to previous years. However I tried to capture what this year felt like. From my perspective on the ice sheet, this is what a record setting melt season looks like.

Part 2: What does melt mean for an ice sheet? A glaciologist could answer this question in a lot of ways because melt has many implications. At the most fundamental level, let’s explore some of the roles of meltwater.

Naturally, the lower part of a glacier melts. Even if the climate wasn’t warming, the section called the “ablation zone” is characterized as a region that looses mass via melting. To balance this, there is a region called the “accumulation zone” higher up on the glacier. In this zone there is no melt and instead the glacier gains mass via snowfall.

From the USGS

In a stable climate, the accumulation and ablation balance each other. Ice flows from higher up on the glacier where there is net gain to lower down on the glacier where there is net loss. In total, the glacier does not gain or loose mass. 

What happens when the climate is warmed? The balance is perturbed. The net ablation zone expands while the net accumulation zone shrinks. 

Image showing an expanding ablation zone in northwest Greeenland (Stef Lhermitte, TU Delft; MODIS Aqua)

Since there is more melt than snowfall, the glacier recedes until it reaches a new balance. If warmed enough, large sections of the glacier can be lost before it stabilizes again. In Greenland, I was in the ablation zone and this zone has been expanding over time.

Meltwater also plays a role in basal sliding. Glaciers can slide because of a film of water at the ice bed interface. Naturally, just from the heat due to the pressure of ice weighing down, ice right near the base of the glacier will thaw and a thin water film will develop. 

Increased surface melt due to warmer climate conditions can introduce more water to the bed and cause faster glacier flow. How does the water get from the surface to the bed? Over time melt ponds on the ice surface get big enough to cause cracks (hydrofracturing) in the ice and the water drains since it is more dense than ice. This water will eventually make it to the bed adding further lubrication for the glacier to slide.

Illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

All this to say meltwater plays many important roles in an ice sheet. Some meltwater is normal for a stable glacier but too much can cause irreversible change. Now behind the news stories and pictures you see, I hope you think about some of the mechanisms of meltwater and what implications this has for a glacier profile.

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