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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.”

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.”

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

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.”

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

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.

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.

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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