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Tracked Vehicle
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Norwegian-U.S. IPY Traverse
Tracked vehicles, similar to this one at left, will carry the traverse scientists, their equipment and fuel across East Antarctica for hundreds of kilometers. The lead vehicle will be equipped with a radar to sense crevasses.

Norway, U.S. team up for IPY traverse

Scientists from the two countries will travel East Antarctica overland to study how snow variability relates to global climate change

Even after 50 years of continuous research across Antarctica by scientists from countries around the world, there are still parts of the icy continent that remain relatively unexplored.

A team of Norwegian and American researchers will take a long trek into one of those unknown areas this austral summer during a 10-week, overland traverse of Dronning Maud Land in East Antarctica. The joint campaign, an International Polar Year (IPY) project, will study how climate variability relates to ice sheet mass and global sea level rise.

The equation is an important one to understand as scientists continue to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of climate change. A warmer climate would naturally cause more melting and calving of icebergs, forcing water levels to rise.

But at the same time, a warmer air mass above the continent would hold more moisture and increase precipitation, possibly offsetting loss in ice sheet mass and perhaps slowing the creep of the ocean to beachfront condos.

There are different hypotheses that say “yea” and “nay” to the idea that precipitation would add significant mass to East Antarctica to counterbalance loss by melting and glaciation, according to Tom Neumann, a polar scientist from the University of Vermont. Neumann will accompany the traverse during its early weeks.

The problem is that both sides of the debate are relying mainly on satellites or models to determine the effect of accumulation rates, explained Mary Albert, principal investigator (PI) and head of the U.S. team. There’s little physical data to corroborate either side —whether the ice sheet is growing or shrinking.

“So we’re going in to find the answer,” said Albert, with Dartmouth College. “We’re going to take the measurements that will show one way or the other.”

Into the unknown

Dronning Maud Land, or Queen Maud Land, is a 2,500,000-square-kilometer wedge that radiates from the South Pole and fans to about 65 degrees of latitude at the coast. The western edge at the widest point abuts the Weddell Sea. The eastern border runs close to 45 degrees East latitude.

The Norwegian-U.S. traverse team will head roughly into the heart of that pie piece, making a roundtrip journey from Troll Station, a Norwegian scientific research base near the coast, to the South Pole over two summer seasons.

The first leg will take the researchers on a southeasterly direction to the Pole of Inaccessibility, the most distant point from the Southern Ocean, before they turn back west to the South Pole. Next year’s journey will pick up at South Pole, following a different and still undetermined route back to Troll Station.

The 4,900-kilometer roundtrip journey will take place in the high elevations of the continent, generally between altitudes of 3,000 and 4,000 meters, Neumann said. Troll Station itself is at about 1,270 meters and the South Pole rises to nearly 3,000 meters.

Traverse Map
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Norwegian-U.S. IPY Traverse
A map detailing the traverse route over two field seasons.

“From the Pole of Inaccessibility to the South Pole, we’ll be going downhill for the last [900] kilometers,” Neumann noted.

There are some measurements of the area from previous overland traverses, particularly the 1960s and 1970s, he said. But no one has really ventured into the region since then, and certainly not with the modern radars and tools at the team’s disposal.

“It’s about as far as you can get from the coast and air bases, and it’s hard to support logistically,” he said, explaining why the area has been largely terra incognita until now. “The only feasible way of doing it, for now, is through traversing.”

Jan-Gunnar Winther, with the Norwegian Polar Institute and overall PI for the traverse, said the team will cross paths with some past expeditions along certain points of the route.

“We can compare some of the historical data with the modern data that we are collecting,” he said.

“This is in an area that is between the Antarctic Peninsula, where we’ve had radical and rapid disintegration [of ice], and the Ross Ice Shelf side, where we’ve had less change but more precipitation,” Winther added.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs