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Drygalski Glacier, Antarictc Peninsula
Photo Credit: Bruce Huber
The Drygalski Glacier on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, as seen from the Weddell Sea in February 2005. Previous expeditions to the region haven't included the range of instruments and personnel who will explore the Larsen Embayment in 2010.

New scientific mode

LARISSA represents one of the biggest IPY projects

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Ellen Mosley-Thompson External Non-U.S. government site doesn’t exaggerate when asked about how the scope and complexity of the LARISSA program External Non-U.S. government site compares to other polar fieldwork she has undertaken over a career that spans more than 30 years.

“This is the biggest project that I’ve worked on. I’ve never worked on anything of this magnitude,” said Mosley-Thompson, an ice-core and paleoclimate expert and professor at The Ohio State University External Non-U.S. government site. Mosley-Thompson, with her colleague and husband Lonnie Thompson External Non-U.S. government site, head an ice-core team that drills into ice caps from Greenland to the high-altitude ice fields of South American and Asia to the large ice sheets of Antarctica.

Her team’s role in the International Polar Year (IPY) External U.S. government site project is to drill an ice core from a camp on an ice ridge about 2,000 meters above sea level — a seemingly pretty standard operation for scientists who have made dozens of expeditions to equally remote and much higher places in the world. [See previous stories: Science goes to new heights and Dusting up.]

Yet drilling the core will be challenging, as it will be among the deepest cores their team has drilled — 400 to 500 meters long to bedrock. The Thompsons expect it to provide a highly detailed story about climate in the region over thousands of years and its possible connections to global events.

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“The excitement is really going to be bringing our records together with what the other partners will have. We’ve never had that luxury,” Mosley-Thompson said.

Indeed, LARISSA brings together more than 30 scientists for one expedition, most of them based aboard the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer External U.S. government site for two months, collecting numerous samples for oceanographic work, including deploying moorings in select locations around the Larsen Embayment to study how the ecosystem has changed since the Larsen B Ice Shelf collapsed in 2002.

“Things are flowing into place quite nicely,” said Eugene Domack External Non-U.S. government site, LARISSA principal investigator and chief scientist of the first of at least two science cruises for the project. “The complexity of the project demanded that we had a lot of lead-up time with planning. You just can’t throw this thing together in six months like a normal cruise.”

In addition to the shipboard work, two helicopters will operate off the ship, providing access to the eastern half of the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as the remaining bit of the Larsen B Ice Shelf and the glaciers that flow into it, for glaciological and geological fieldwork.

“Big is the word for LARISSA. We’re doing everything under the sun,” said Adam Jenkins, the LARISSA project manager for Raytheon Polar Services Co. External Non-U.S. government site, the prime contractor to the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site.

“We have an ROV. We’re coring four or five different ways. … Plus, full physical oceanography work. We’re going big with everything,” he said, adding that this is only the second time in more than 15 years of operation that the Palmer will support helicopter flights.

It’s Jenkins’ job to ensure all the moving parts of the project chug along smoothly, oiling the machine with as many contingency plans as possible. That task got easier when the NSF decided to support the Thompsons’ drill camp with a Twin Otter airplane from British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera Station External Non-U.S. government site on the western side of the peninsula.

“That was a huge deal,” Jenkins noted.

Still, even with the ship freed from helping the ice-core team, the scientists know they’ll need ideal conditions to accomplish all the work they want in 60 days.

“This is a very complicated program,” said Ted Scambos External Non-U.S. government site, lead scientist at the Boulder, Colo.-based National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) External Non-U.S. government site, who will spend most of his time in helo-supported field camps setting up instruments to observe the ice shelf and glaciers.

“To have all of these different disciplines operate simultaneously from the Palmer is a real trick,” he said. “It’s a tribute to Raytheon, Eugene and other leads to organize this and to get it all fit together to be as active as we’re planning to be without getting in each other’s way.”

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