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Ship in water near Antarctic Peninsula.
Photo Credit: Eugene Domack
The research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer en route to Barilari Bay on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, where it took sediment cores in support of an ice-coring paleoclimate project on the Bruce Plateau. 

Changing course

LARISSA project found new direction after 'anomalous' weather year forced ship's retreat

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Extreme sea ice conditions and one of the world’s most powerful earthquakes bookended a two-month science expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula earlier this year, ensuring few dull moments for chief scientist Eugene Domack External Non-U.S. government site.

“It was very challenging,” said Domack during a recent phone interview. A geosciences professor at Hamilton College External Non-U.S. government site in New York, Domack was the lead principal investigator for the LARsen Ice Shelf System, Antarctica (LARISSA) External Non-U.S. government site project, which was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site. “It required flexibility on an almost hourly basis.”

The LARISSA project — an interdisciplinary program to study different facets of the Larsen Embayment where an ice shelf had shattered apart less than a decade ago — assembled together dozens of scientists aboard the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer External U.S. government site in January and February.

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The researchers brought helicopters, huge sediment coring tools, automated deep-field stations outfitted with high-tech GPS instruments, and even a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) in what promised to be one of the biggest science campaigns to close out the International Polar Year (IPY) External U.S. government site.

And then the Palmer, a 300-foot-long icebreaker, ran into an unusually thick, impenetrable swath of sea ice in the Weddell Sea on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula en route to the Larsen Embayment. The normal atmospheric and weather patterns that should have shoved all that ice clear never happened.

“It was almost like a year without summer,” Domack said.

Changing course

The team changed plans and course, steaming to the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula where it could get close to the coast and launch the helicopters across the spine of the peninsula to the east side when weather permitted. A fuel cache left at the seasonal Argentine research station, Teniente Matienzo Base, on the east side meant more fuel and an extended range for the helicopters.

Helicopter lifts off from ship deck.
Photo Courtesy: NSIDC/Ted Scambos
A helicopter lifts from the deck of the ship.

“That allowed us to stretch their distance from that side of the peninsula,” Domack said. “Surprisingly, we managed to get a fair proportion of work done … through just coming up with some logistical thinking and out-of-the-box kind of response to the setting we were given.”

The ship-based scientists decided to throw much of their energy into supporting concurrent work by an ice-coring team on the Bruce Plateau, an ice field 2,000 meters high straddling a narrow ridge on the peninsula. That group, led by Ellen Mosley-Thompson External Non-U.S. government site, professor of geography at The Ohio State University External Non-U.S. government site, recovered a 445.6-meter-long core, the longest yet drilled from that region of Antarctica.

The ice core team had its own challenges. Bad weather delayed its transport to the remote drill site, and snowstorms were a recurrent problem, preventing support flights to the team from the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera Station External Non-U.S. government site. Their drills twice became stuck deep in the ice, a drill motor broke and all three of the drill gearboxes failed, causing them to cannibalize those devices to construct a new one.

“It was the field season from hell,” said Mosley-Thompson, in a press release from The Ohio State University, where she is also the director of the Byrd Polar Research Center External Non-U.S. government site. “Everything that could go wrong did, and almost everything that could break did.”

Despite the setbacks, the team drilled down to bedrock ahead of schedule.1 2 3   Next