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David Holland working in the field.
Photo Courtesy: David Holland
David Holland sets up the power system for an automatic weather station near Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica during the 2007-08 field season. The AWS has returned important data that will help the scientists plan the next phase of their project to study the interaction between the glacier, its abutting ice shelf and the ocean below. 

Pine Island Glacier

Scientists prepare for difficult trip to Antarctica's most dynamic region

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More than 18 months ago, Robert Bindschadler External U.S. government site became the first person to stand on the crevasse-ridden ice shelf fed by Pine Island Glacier, the fastest moving river of ice in Antarctica.

It turned out to be the first and last flight to the floating sheet of ice for that field season.

Bindschadler, along with his colleague David Holland External Non-U.S. government site, had been on a reconnaissance mission to this windswept, barren spot. Their plan was to survey the location for a future field camp where they could safely work on the ice shelf, which is thinning rapidly along with the glacier. Below the hundreds-meter-thick ice, the ocean is melting the shelf, allowing the glacier to accelerate its charge into the Amundsen Sea.

More on PIG
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The science: Model Problem

Nearly a third of the ice in West Antarctica drains through the region. Were it to all pour out in a catastrophic uncorking, sea level would rise more than a meter, enough to drown coastal areas from Florida to Bangladesh. In the immediate future — over the next century — scientists are sure Pine Island Glacier, referred to as PIG, will contribute significantly to sea level rise. Just how much remains the big question drawing them to that remote corner of the continent.

“We’re going out to this difficult-to-get-to, hard-to-operate-in area because that’s where dramatic things are happening,” explained Bindschadler, chief scientist of the Hydrospheric and Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center External U.S. government site.

“This is where satellite observations are setting off sirens and raising red flags,” added Bindschadler, the principal investigator for the multi-disciplinary project External U.S. government site, which is also part of the International Polar Year (IPY) External U.S. government site program. “This is where all the action is taking place. We don’t have any choice in the matter. We have to go there.”

Despite landing on the ice shelf with a ski-equipped Twin Otter, the surface proved to be too hard and too rough to ensure a safe series of repeated aircraft landings. The National Science Foundation-funded External U.S. government site project to study how the ocean and ice interact seemed over almost before it began.

“It was a crushing blow,” Bindschadler said. “On the fly we had to make up a different field program, at least for that season.”

Convinced it would still be possible to work on the ice shelf in the future, and motivated by the unanswered scientific questions, the researchers installed an automatic weather station (AWS) near the glacier to monitor the weather and two GPS units on ice streams feeding Pine Island Glacier to track the speed of the ice toward the ocean.

Automated Weather Station
Photo Courtesy: David Holland
Scientists set up an AWS near Pine Island Glacier in 2007-08.

More than a year later, the AWS still works, shutting down only occasionally in the winter when intense storms cause icing to block the satellite communications. The information it has sent via Iridium satellites confirms that this part of West Antarctica is a common target of storms, with an annual snow accumulation of about a meter.

“That’s the beginning of getting important, meaningful data,” noted Holland, a co-principal investigator and director of the Center for Atmosphere Ocean Science at New York University External Non-U.S. government site.

The road back to PIG

The road back to PIG for Bindschadler, Holland and their colleagues goes through Byrd — a former field camp and research station of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site. This season the National Science Foundation (NSF) will build a new deep-field camp at 80°S and 119°W to support a number of projects in West Antarctica, including the eventual return trip to Pine Island for the scientists. [See related story: Byrd Camp Resurfaces.]

The plan is to construct the facilities at Byrd Camp this year and to transport all of the equipment for a second field camp at PIG, according to Chad Naughton, a Science Planning manager for Raytheon Polar Services Co. (RPSC) External Non-U.S. government site, the prime logistics contractor to the NSF.

Tractors and sleds will haul all of the equipment needed to establish a camp near the ice shelf in 2010-11, traversing about 700 kilometers of snow and ice twice in one season. “Everything will be out there,” Naughton said. In addition, LC-130 ski-equipped planes flown by the New York Air National Guard External U.S. government site will transport two helicopters to a third field camp at stormy WAIS Divide, site of a five-year, deep-ice coring project.

The helicopters will solve the problem of landing safely on the PIG ice shelf, an 800-square-kilometer slab of ice that floats on an eponymous bay that opens up into the Amundsen Sea. The helicopter camp will be about 2,000 kilometers from McMurdo Station External U.S. government site, the logistics hub of the USAP.

“I know we’re at the cutting edge of science, but we’re also at the far edge of logistics,” Bindschadler said.1 2   Next