This project’s official title is "Ocean-Ice Interaction in the Amundsen Sea: the Keystone to Ice-Sheet Stability". A real mouthful, but it captures the essence of what we intend to do, where we will do it and why we feel it is important to do it. Various other measurements have captured the West Antarctic ice sheet changing very rapidly in the region where it flows into the Amundsen Sea, one of the sectors of the Southern Ocean. The spatial pattern strongly suggests that the cause of this change is weaker ice shelves, the floating apron of ice that fringe the perimeter of the ice sheet. Our hypothesis is that warm water is melting the undersides of these ice shelves decreasing the "back pressure" from the ice shelves to help hold the ice sheet. Less backpressure means the ice sheet can flow faster. Faster flow-smaller ice sheet-higher sea levels-slow motion coastal flooding worldwide.
Satellite observations have been tremendously valuable in identifying these changes, but can’t tell us what’s going on beneath the ice. Direct observations are required. That’s where our field work comes in. We need to drill through the ice to deploy instruments that will measure what’s going on. This may sound easy, but there are multiple hurdles that must be overcome. Getting there is the first one. These ice shelves are heavily crevassed—landing even a small plane may not be possible. Finding an area large enough to work could be difficult. We know how to use hot water drills to make a hole in the ice, but the hole is narrow forcing us to design new skinny instruments that are smart and sturdy enough to measure the water’s temperature, movement and saltiness. Our instruments will be smart enough to "phone home" and understand new commands we might send. Finally, to be able to use what we learn in one small area, we need to know the shape of not just the floating ice sheet, but also the water cavity beneath the ice and create new computer models so we can simulate what is going on and compare it with our measurements. And remember, this is Antarctica. We can only be there during the middle of the summer, it is cold, it is probably very windy much of the time and even the simplest tasks can be very difficult.
Such a monumental scientific undertaking requires a host of talents. Our team includes a variety of highly skilled polar scientists and engineers. This web site introduces them, along with our research plan. Updates will allow visitors to this site to follow our progress. Hopefully, this "over our shoulder" view of an important science project will be informative, educational, exciting and inspiring.