Looking for Clues to Global Warming in the Polar Ice

Special from The Record

Jan. 28, 2011Bookmark and Share

At the bottom of the world, scientists are camping near the Transantarctic Mountains, studying exposed rocks at the edge of a vast ice sheet and looking for clues to its past. They hope the geological record will explain how the planet is warming today, and point to what may happen in the future.

One of those scientists is Michael Kaplan, a Lamont assistant research professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. He and his colleague, Gisela Winckler, a Lamont associate research professor and adjunct associate professor at Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, who remains at Lamont’s campus in Palisades, N.Y., will analyze rock and sediment samples that they hope will show how the Eastern Antarctic ice sheet developed over time.

“Their work is concerned with understanding and documenting climate change in the past,” said G. Michael Purdy, director of Lamont-Doherty. “It is exploration at the cutting edge.” (As of Feb. 1, Purdy will become the University’s executive vice president for research.)

The project, funded by the National Science Foundation, combines field work, geochemical analyses and advanced, isotope-based dating tools to develop a record of fluctuations in the East Antarctic ice sheet and identify past changes in both ice sheet flow direction and bedrock composition. The Lamont scientists are working with climate scientists from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Understanding the historical context and dynamics of Antarctica’s two massive ice sheets is critical for climate scientists if they are to create accurate computer models. “If your model isn’t able to reproduce what happened in the past it obviously isn’t good at predicting what will happen in the future,” Winckler said. “This is where the geological records will really help.”

The scientists have been documenting their preparations and efforts with a series of blog posts from the field camp. Here are excerpts:

Dec. 25–After months of waiting, we leave Los Angeles on a nonstop 12-hour flight to New Zealand. We are Mike Kaplan at Lamont Doherty, Kathy Licht, a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and Nicole Bader, a student from St. Norbert College in Wisconsin.

Dec. 28–We get off the plane in Antarctica and—it is beautiful, in the 30s (Fahrenheit) sunny and dry. When it is this dry and sunny, it is light-jacket weather.

The next 10 days are for packing, coordinating, and most important, taking safety classes of all types including the most important–a two-day/one-night class where we camp outside, learn about all the camping equipment, and show we can deal with the elements before they send us out into the unknown. We also need snowmobile school, helicopter safety school, environmental safety and awareness, crevasse training, and on and on …With all the gear and packing to put together, including food, this will take well over a week.

We need to make sure we have two of many things, such as stoves, for safety. Just planning our food for when we are working takes all afternoon and half the evening.

Jan. 20–We survived Happy Camper survival school! This is essential training for anyone who goes into the field on the coldest, most remote continent on Earth … We learn to build snow trenches for survival and all things related to camping in the cold, although we still appreciate that it is warmer here than back home. Also, everyone goes through snowmobile basic repair and use, rock climbing 101 and crevasse rescue training.

Tomorrow is the last day before flying out to the remote CTAM (central Transantarctic Mountains) camp that we will use as a base for getting to Mount Howe and Mount Achernar. Mike Roberts, our mountaineering guide, uses the last day to give one more crevasserescue training course.

We learned how to stop a fall down a steep slope, set up rescue systems and traversed around an ice fall to learn to recognize and avoid crevasses. Upon our return, we found out that our flight will be delayed a day. Very typical for Antarctica!

Since the last post, the team has been at its campsite near the Transantarctic Mountains and has no access to the Internet. As of Jan. 26, they were expected to return to base camp any day. Blog posts will resume and can be found on Lamont’s website at www.ldeo.columbia.edu.

—by Record Staff

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