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CReSIS radar system crucial to Antarctic expedition

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

LAWRENCE — A “clone” of an ice-penetrating radar system created by researchers at the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets at the University of Kansas will be used as the key component for a multinational team of scientists as they pierce the mysteries of one of the last unexplored places on Earth.

Through an agreement between CReSIS and a team from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a replica of the CReSIS radar system was built at KU. The system will be used on a National Science Foundation plane to virtually “peel away” more than 2.5 miles of ice covering an Antarctic mountain range that rivals the Alps in elevation, spanning an area more than twice the size of California.

“They came here and built it here from our schematics,” said David Braaten, deputy director of CReSIS and professor of geography. “We’ll be in the field doing quality control and analysis of the data on the ground.”

Along with Braaten, computer science undergraduate student Chris McMinn will be on the ground in Antarctica during the upcoming trip.

“He’ll be assisting with the quality control,” Braaten said. “He’ll help make backups of the radar data coming off the plane.”

CReSIS is charged with developing new technologies and computer models to measure and predict the changes in polar ice sheets and their role in global climate change.

“What we hope to have before we leave there is a preliminary map of these mountains under the ice,” Braaten said. “Then we’ll take the data and use our software here at KU to analyze everything. We’ll be able to have a copy of these data and use it for study here.”

Working every day at extreme altitudes, in 24 hours of sunlight and temperatures as low as minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit, the researchers of the Antarctica’s Gamburstev Province team hope the technology they bring to bear will help them answer the question of whether the Gamburstevs were born of tectonic activity in Antarctica or date from a period millions of years ago when Antarctica was the center of an enormous supercontinent located at far lower latitudes.

What the team hopes to find there are answers to some of the most basic questions about the nature of the southernmost continent — and specifically the massive East Antarctic Ice Sheet — including how Antarctica came to be ice-covered in the first place and whether, as many believe, that process began millions of years ago in the enigmatic Gamburstev Mountain range.

Robin Bell of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who shares the leadership of the U.S. science effort, said AGAP will help scientists understand one of Antarctica’s last major mysteries. “Because the heart of East Antarctica is so difficult to get to, we know very little about it.”

Added Fausto Ferraccioli, a geophysicist with the British Antarctic Survey who is leading the United Kingdom’s team: “This is both an exciting and challenging project. It is a bit like preparing to go to Mars. For two and a half months, our international teams will pool their resources and expertise to survey mountains the size of the Alps buried under the ice sheet, that currently defy any reasonable geological explanation. At the same time, we will hunt for ice that is more than 1.2 million years old. Locked in this ancient ice is a detailed record of past climate change that may assist in making better predictions for our future.”

AGAP is a high-tech scientific enterprise involving researchers and support personnel from Australia, China, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, which caps the global scientific deployment known as the International Polar Year, the largest coordinated international scientific effort in 50 years.

The Gamburtsevs themselves were discovered by a Soviet traverse during the last International Polar Year in 1957-58 — then known as the International Geophysical Year. Since that time, the region has been largely untouched.

Traveling deep into the Antarctic interior, more than 394 miles from the South Pole, the science teams will be based at a pair of remote field camps while they complete the first major geophysical survey to map the mysterious landscape.

The U.S. research teams, from CReSIS, Columbia, Penn State University, Washington University in St. Louis, the Incorporated Research Institutions in Seismology and the U.S. Geological Survey, are supported by the National Science Foundation, which manages all U.S. research on the southernmost continent through the U.S. Antarctic Program. The National Science Foundaton is also the lead U.S. agency for the International Polar Year.

Researchers from Washington University and Penn State will contribute to the fieldwork by using seismic recordings of earthquakes to create images of the crust and mantle beneath the mountain range.

“This project is a major undertaking for IPY,” said Karl A. Erb, the director of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs. “No one nation could do this alone. International collaboration for both the science and logistics elements is absolutely essential. This partnership illustrates perfectly how national Antarctic programs can work together to support and deliver the vital research that help answer the big, yet basic, scientific questions about our world.”


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