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International science mission

Posted October 22, 2012 @ 7:16pm | by TravelWild

To complement the news of this year’s smallest ice coverage in the Arctic (in the satellite record) comes the discovery of Antarctica’s largest ice extent, leading to naysaying, speculation, and research on climate change and its effects on the poles.  According to some scientists, the changes in ice extent at the Southern Pole are possibly due to changes in air circulation, a ramification of changing conditions at the Northern Pole.

NASA Earth Observatory offers this descriptive map:

“The year 2012 continues a long-term contrast between the two hemispheres, with decreasing sea ice coverage in the Arctic and increasing sea ice coverage in the Antarctic.” Parkinson added, “Both hemispheres have considerable inter-annual variability, so that in either hemisphere, next year could have either more or less sea ice than this year. Still, the long-term trends are clear, but not equal: the magnitude of the ice losses in the Arctic considerably exceed the magnitude of the ice gains in the Antarctic.”

Scientists from the University of Colorado shed light on how these two polar opposites are happening simultaneously:

“Comparing winter and summer sea ice trends for the two poles is problematic since different processes are in effect. During summer, surface melt and ice-albedo feedbacks are in effect; winter processes include snowfall on the sea ice, and wind. Small changes in winter extent may be a more mixed signal than the loss of summer sea ice extent. An expansion of winter Antarctic ice could be due to cooling, winds, or snowfall, whereas Arctic summer sea ice decline is more closely linked to decadal climate warming.”

To better understand the actual ice volume—the thickness and not just the surface area as viewed by satellites—scientists have begun an international project of mapping the Antarctic sea ice using a robo-submarine, as well as experiments on the ice assessing the effects of climate change on species like the ubiquitous krill.

Fifty scientists from 8 countries are aboard the Aurora Australis for the Sea Ice Physics & Ecosystem eXperiment (SIPEX-II) to study the physics, chemistry and biology of the Southern Ocean.  One of the scientists on board, Dr. Wendy Pyper, is blogging about the 7-week voyage in the Eastern Antarctic sea ice.

In her 09/28/12 post “A Day of Delight and Drama,” she writes,

How many people get to start their day with a helicopter flight across Antarctic sea ice, chill with a bunch of emperor penguins after lunch and witness a rescue team in action when a group of scientists become separated from the ship by a crack in the ice? Tuesday 25 September was certainly a day this ship’s complement won’t forget, for many different reasons.

Antarctica sparkled in the morning. At 9.00 am Voyage Chief Scientist, Dr Klaus Meiners, and I did a helicopter reconnaissance to search for a suitable ice floe on which to begin scientific work. Klaus was looking for a single floe, of a size and thickness that would accommodate a 200 m scientific ‘transect’. He found one some 5 miles south of the ship and we steamed towards it over the next few hours.

…There was a buzz in the air when we reached our first ice station as expectant scientists who had been cooped up all week were finally free to step onto the ice. Klaus and Field Training Officer Christian Gallagher tested the floe first, drilling down into it to check its thickness and doing a general recce of the snow and ice conditions. The report back was that there was a lot of snow and a few areas of slush, but there was plenty of good stuff to sink data loggers and drill bits into.

Red and yellow flags were used to mark out the 200 x 200 m transect in which some scientific teams would work. Then containers were craned over the side of the ship and an orderly procession of teams, towing their sleds of equipment, stepped onto the ice and dispersed.

With all this noise and activity we had attracted a group of about 17 curious emperor penguins. These beautiful, big, fat birds spent a lot of time diving in the open water at the back of the ship, but once the scientists stepped on to the ice, the penguins decided to take a closer look. Within moments one team of scientists was surrounded, and outnumbered, by the group. The penguins moved between teams checking that the work was being conducted in a rigorous fashion and posing for group photos.

After all this general joie de vivre, Antarctica decided to remind us that we are here on nature’s terms. A number of people had already expressed a vague feeling of uneasiness working on the floe and watchers on the bridge had decided to call everyone back to the ship. Mere moments after this decision, at about 8.20 pm, the ice floe suddenly cracked in two places. Three horn blasts were sounded to evacuate people from the floe but three people were separated on the other side of the crack, with about 3 m of ocean between them and the main part of the floe.

…Within about 30 minutes of the drama unfolding, our three team members were safely back on the main ice floe, along with their scientific equipment.

The affected scientists and those involved in the rescue operation have since been debriefed and the incident picked apart so that we can learn from the experience and improve our response to similar incidents in the future. While all precautions are taken and safety is drilled into us, the fact is we are working in a changeable and unpredictable environment. We must be prepared, trained, alert and aware.

We are now moving deeper into the ice and into ice floes that are more consolidated. Aerial images taken from the flying toolbox have identified a couple of promising floes. A few light-hearted puns have helped ease the tension wrought by Tuesday’s events, with the Chief Scientist heard to say ‘Let’s have another crack at an ice station tomorrow’, our Data Manager reminding scientists not to ‘let any of your data fall through the cracks’, and from our Voyage Leader ; ‘we’ll just go with the floe’.

Thanks to many international collaborations and the blogging community, climate change, scientific discovery and the remote Southern Ocean are accessible and brought to life, educating the layperson on what’s happening at this polar extreme and sharing these exciting moments.

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