UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
IMAGE: THE NEW ICE CORE IS DRILLED AT HERCULES DOME AT 86 DEGREES SOUTH, OVER 400 KILOMETERS (250 MILES) FROM THE SOUTH POLE AND 1,000 KM (650 MILES) FROM TODAY. View More CREDIT: UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
Antarctica’s next deep ice core, drilled on ice 130,000 years ago, is being carried out by a multi-institutional US team at the Hercules Dome, a location hundreds of kilometers from today’s coast and a promising location to to provide important evidence for the possible final collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet.
The National Science Foundation funded the roughly five-year, $ 3 million project involving the University of Washington, the University of New Hampshire, the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Minnesota. Work has been delayed by the novel coronavirus, but drilling of the 1.5-mile ice core is expected to begin in 2024.
“The ice at this location goes back to a time when the sea level was about 6 meters higher than today,” said project manager Eric Steig, UW professor for earth and space sciences. “One of the most likely reasons for the higher sea levels is that a large area of Antarctica known as the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has disappeared.”
The scientists hope to understand the recent collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet in order to better assess the potential risk in today’s warming climate. The deeper ice layers at this point go back to the time of the Eemians – the most recent time, which, as now, was between the ice ages. The Eemian was even warmer than today’s climate and the oceans were higher.
“This place, now hundreds of miles from the ocean, may have been owned by the water 125,000 years ago,” said Steig. “We should be able to determine this from the chemistry of the ice. For example, the concentration of salt may be higher when there is open water nearby, rather than more than a thousand miles away. Understanding this event helps us understand how quickly sea levels may rise in the future due to ongoing anthropogenic climate change. “
The Hercules Dome site, remote even by Antarctic standards, is near a mountain range that separates East and West Antarctica. UW researchers visited the site in early 2020 to study potential drilling locations. They used ice-penetrating radar to find locations where the ice layers were more than 125,000 years ago when the oceans rose dramatically.
Ice and air bubbles trapped in the ice layers can provide researchers with a variety of information about past conditions. The youngest deep ice core in Antarctica was completed at the South Pole in 2016 by many of the same team members.
“The Hercules Dome ice core will be the first US ice core to provide a detailed climate record in the last interglacial period,” said senior investigator Murat Aydin of the University of California at Irvine.
The project will begin next year with online workshops to recruit new employees and expand participation in polar science. The initial investment from the National Science Foundation will cover the cost of the drilling project, but many more scientists can apply for additional funding to analyze the core over the next several years. The delays caused by the pandemic offer more time to bring new people into the discipline.
“The earth sciences are known to be particularly white and masculine, and the polar earth sciences are even more so,” said Steig. “It is common knowledge that a more diverse community leads to better results – that is, we will do better science with more types of people involved. But it is also the right thing. Anyone interested in participating in this science should have the opportunity. “
The University of New Hampshire will provide logistical and scientific support for the planning of the field project. Researchers will live in tents on the ice sheet hundreds of kilometers from inhabited areas during the month-long field season.
“For example, our planning will detail how we will get ourselves and any required scientific cargo and storage materials to the Hercules Dome, likely through a combination of overland spreader and aircraft support. Special features of the field camp, such as camp population, camp structures and distribution, electricity and fuel requirements, camp equipment; and the fieldwork schedule, ”said Joe Souney, research project manager at the University of New Hampshire.
The project plans to coordinate with artists, computer scientists, media, educational institutions and museums to share the efforts and science of climate change.
Heidi Roop, a climate researcher at the University of Minnesota, will lead the engagement program and work to connect science through this project with diverse audiences, including those who are actively planning and preparing the effects of sea level rise – coastal planners and water Utility engineers to homeowners and elected officials.
“This is the first US deep-sea core drilling project with a senior researcher dedicated to integrating community engagement and communication over the life of the project,” said Roop. “With this investment from NSF, we are confident that we can more effectively combine this science with action.”