Tag Archives: Field work

First look under Thwaites Glacier and Kamb Ice Stream

Georgia Tech scientists get first look deep under Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier and Kamb Ice Stream

ANTARCTICA — An international team including scientists from Georgia Tech captured new images and first-of-its-kind data from deep beneath an Antarctic glacier, which will help scientists to better understand the impact of one of Antarctica’s fastest changing regions and its impact on future sea level rise.

"It's our 'walking on the moon' moment." Thwaites Glacier Icefin quote

Their work will be featured as part of a special report on BBC World News on Tuesday, Jan. 28, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica.

Stationed in Antarctica for the last two months, the MELT (Melting at Thwaites grounding zone and its control on sea level) team, part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, deployed ocean instruments and cored sediments to gather data on one of the most important and hazardous glaciers in Antarctica. The MELT team included Georgia Tech scientists who used an underwater robot named Icefin to navigate the waters beneath Thwaites Glacier and collect data from the grounding zone – the area where the glacier meets the sea.

Dr. Britney Schmidt, lead scientist for Icefin and associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, said the new data represented several firsts for her team, as well as for science as a whole.

“We designed Icefin to be able to finally enable access to grounding zones of glaciers, places where observations have been nearly impossible, but where rapid change is taking place,” said Schmidt, a co-investigator on the MELT project. “We’re proud of Icefin, since it represents a new way of looking at glaciers and ice shelves. For really the first time, we can drive miles under the ice to measure and map processes we can’t otherwise reach. We’ve taken the first close-up look at a grounding zone. It’s our ‘walking on the moon’ moment.”


Located in a remote part of Antarctica, where few scientists have ever ventured, the team battled sometimes hostile weather, extreme winds, and temperatures below -22 degrees Fahrenheit to get close enough to the Antarctic coastline for Icefin to reach the grounding zone.

In these trying conditions, the MELT team used hot water to drill through up to 2,300 feet – nearly a half mile – of ice to get to the ocean and the seafloor below. On Jan. 9 and 10, Icefin swam more than a mile from the drill site to the Thwaites grounding zone, to measure, image, and map the glacier’s melting and gather other important data that scientists can use to understand the changing landscape and conditions. Not only did the team put one Icefin robot down the borehole at Thwaites Glacier, but they did it with a second Icefin vehicle in collaboration with Antarctica New Zealand near the grounding zone of Kamb Ice Stream, part of the Ross Ice Shelf.

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Thwaites Glacier, which covers an area the size of Florida, is particularly susceptible to climate and ocean changes. Thwaites melting accounts for about 4 percent of global sea level rise, and the amount of ice flowing out of Thwaites and its neighbouring glaciers has nearly doubled in the past 30 years, making it one of Antarctica’s most rapidly changing regions.

"We're particularly concerned about Thwaites." Thwaites Glacier quoteDr. Keith Nicholls, an oceanographer from British Antarctic Survey and UK lead on the MELT team, said Icefin’s exploration of sediment and other conditions in the Thwaites grounding zone will help scientists determine how this region will change in the future and what kind of impact on sea level rise we can expect from these changes. The MELT team also deployed radars and oceanographic sensors, conducted seismic studies and took sediment cores from beneath the glacier, and deployed two moorings through the ice that will record ocean and ice conditions for the coming year to monitor changes at Thwaites.

“We know that warmer ocean waters are eroding many of West Antarctica’s glaciers, but we’re particularly concerned about Thwaites,” he said. “This new data will provide a new perspective of the processes taking place, so we can predict future change with more certainty”

The MELT project is funded by the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), a collaboration between the U.S.’s National Science Foundation and the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council.

From left, (1) Icefin image of sediment laden ice at the grounding zone of Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica. (2) Icefin view of the grounding zone of Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica, in less than one meter of water. (3) Icefin image of sediments and rock in the ice at the grounding zone of Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica.
From left, (1) Icefin image of sediment laden ice at the grounding zone of Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica. (2) Icefin view of the grounding zone of Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica, in less than one meter of water. (3) Icefin image of sediments and rock in the ice at the grounding zone of Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica.

“To have the chance to do this at Thwaites Glacier, which is such a critical hinge point in West Antarctica, is a dream come true for me and my team. The data couldn’t be more exciting,” Schmidt said. “And exploring the grounding zones of two different glaciers in the same season is incredible.”

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In addition to the MELT project, Schmidt is the Primary Investigator for the RISE UP (Ross Ice Shelf and Europa Underwater Probe) project, which also had team members from Georgia Tech deployed in Antarctica this season.  RISE UP is a NASA-funded project that developed Icefin from a prototype to a full-fledged underwater vehicle and aims to develop technology for future missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Both the MELT and RISE UP teams spent time at McMurdo Station, Antarctica conducting research, before simultaneously deploying to more remote areas. Antarctic logistics for both projects were supported by the National Science Foundation, under the United States Antarctic Program.

RISE UP‘s work at Kamb Ice Stream came as part of a collaboration with two projects supported by Antarctica New Zealand: the NZARI Ross Ice Shelf Programme led by Dr Christina Hulbe of the University of Otago, and the NZ Antarctic Science Platform’s Antarctic Ice Dynamics project, led by Dr Huw Horgan of Victoria University. 

RISE UP team members deployed along with the New Zealand hot water drilling and science teams to study the Kamb Ice Stream – a river of ice – on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Their goal was to explore and map areas near the grounding zone to better understand its flow and the surrounding environment.  Icefin’s work at Kamb Ice Stream will continue next season as part of Dr. Horgan’s project.

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“We now have, effectively, a transect of conditions from the front of the Ross Ice Shelf to the grounding line,” sadi Christina Hulbe of the Ross Ice Shelf Programme, which finished its final year of field work in late December. “In addition to Icefin’s work, we’ve installed our third ice-anchored mooring, collected cores for sedimentary and microbiological analysis, we’ve imaged the ice optically and using radar, and made high resolution observations of ocean conditions.”

The RISE UP team completed three dives with Icefin, and team member Ben Hurwitz, a graduate student at Georgia Tech who works on Icefin’s technology, said the season was wildly successful, adding the team was “excited to share what we found in the coming months.”

Notes on the projects:

The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration: www.thwaitesglacier.org

The MELT Project is lead by Keith Nicholls , an oceanographer with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), and Dr. David Holland, an applied mathematician (with a background in fluid dynamics) at New York University, with co-leads Dr. Eric Rignot from the University of California at Irving, Dr. John Paden with George Mason University, Dr. Sridhar Anandakrishnan out of Pennsylvania State University, and Dr. Britney Schmidt at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

RISE UP’s field work at Kamb Ice Stream came as part of two science projects funded by Antarctica New Zealand and the Victoria University of Wellington Science Drilling Office. The other research partners involved on the project are: The University of Otago, Victoria University, University of Canterbury and University of Waikato, NIWA and GNS Science from NZ and the ROSETTA project and Universty of California, Santa Cruz in the US.

Week 8-10 Update: Icefin Team 2019 Antarctic Field Season

Well, folks, that time we’ve been waiting for is upon us: the Icefin teams are about to attempt dives at the grounding zones of the Kamb Ice Stream and Thwaites Glacier!

Figure 1: Andy, Britney and the Kamb Team wait for the transport van in explorer pose.
Figure 1: Andy, Britney and the Kamb Team wait for the transport van in explorer pose.

Figure 2: Andy helps the Kamb Team load their gear.
Figure 2: Andy helps the Kamb Team load their gear.

RISE UP at Kamb Ice Stream Camp with ANZ

In exciting news, all members of the Icefin KAMB team are now on site at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, and are as we type working towards Icefin’s first dive through the grounding zone. Matt, Justin, Ben, Peter, and Enrica have been busy preparing Icefin and helping with general duties at the Antarctica New Zealand field camp. Hot water drilling at the site began this week and science is underway! Keep your eyes on @the_Ross_Ice_Shelf_Programme on Instagram for more updates! When we’re able to get a few updates and maybe an image or two we will also update you on Icefin’s social media.

Figure 3: The team was thrilled when Matt departed, the first Icefin team member to move out to a deep field camp.
Figure 3: The team was thrilled when Matt departed, the first Icefin team member to move out to a deep field camp.

Figure 4: We’re finally on the transport list to Thwaites!!
Figure 4: We’re finally on the transport list to Thwaites!!

Icefin team headed out to Thwaites Glacier

The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration program has been waiting for a break in the weather at WAIS divide camp to get to move folks out to camp. In a week of emotional highs and lows, the weather finally broke in our favor and the first flights to get ITGC personnel into WAIS divide camp and on to their field sites happened late Wednesday, with MELT’s own James Wake, along with USAP safety lead Loomy, and GHC member/radar guru Seth Campbell made it out! The team of three made it to the grounding zone down stream (GZDS) Site where the first hot water hole will be drilled. The safety team was able to land at the site and successfully establish camp. Since then, the intrepid pilots of the Twin Otter and Basler aircraft, both USAP flown by Kenn Borek Air out of Canada and the British Antarctic Survey TO, have completed many rotations to start bringing gear out to the camp. The Basler being able to land at both Cavity Camp (where colleagues in TARSAN will be working) and at GZDS has meant that much faster gear delivery has been possible, making up time from the early season weather delay.

Later in the week the second wave of the team, consisting of the British Antarctic Survey drill and science team, made it on a flight out of McMurdo to WAIS, where Paul Anker and James Smith went to the LTG field camp to break all out all of the drill equipment which was staged over winter to be sent to GZDS. The remaining team, PI Keith Nicholls, mountaineer Catrin Thomas, and Pete Davis proceeded on to the camp site at GZDS where they are establishing camp and receiving gear. The Icefin portion of the MELT team, Twin Otter and Basler aircraft, both USAP flown by Kenn Borek Air out of Canada and the British Antarctic Survey TO, have completed many rotations to start bringing gear out to the camp. The Basler being able to land at both Cavity Camp (where colleagues in TARSAN will be working) and at GZDS has meant that much faster gear delivery has been possible, making up time from the early season weather delay. Later in the week the second wave of the team, consisting of the British Antarctic Survey drill and science team, made it on a flight out of McMurdo to WAIS, where Paul Anker and James Smith went to the LTG field camp to break all out all of the drill equipment which was staged over winter to be sent to GZDS. The remaining team, PI Keith Nicholls, mountaineer Catrin Thomas, and Pete Davis proceeded on to the camp site at GZDS where they are establishing camp and receiving gear. The Icefin portion of the MELT team, consisting of Britney, Dan, and Andy are currently all packed up and eagerly waiting their flight to WAIS Divide, which is waiting on good weather to leave MCM. They’ll be joined by PI David Holland and Aurora Basinski-Ferris, as well as members of the TARSAN team. In addition to all the oceanographers, the team was also joined by the final MELT field team members lead by Kiya Riverman, who will be a few days behind the Icefin and NYU teams.

Figure 5: David Vaughn gave a truly inspiring Sunday night science lecture about the Thwaites program and its role in predicting and mediating sea level rise.
Figure 5: David Vaughn gave a truly inspiring Sunday night science lecture about the Thwaites program and its role in predicting and mediating sea level rise.

Hurry Up and Thwaites

During the weather delays, the Icefin team has kept as busy as possible. It’s rare to get a few weeks to catch up, particularly from generally exasperated PI Britney. We’ve used the extra time to make progress in several important areas. Britney has finalized her chapter for the upcoming Planetary Astrobiology book (University of Arizona Press) and been trying to help lead Editor Vikki Meadows as much as possible. She also submitted a Nature Geoscience paper with the Dawn team, and sent back revisions on two planetary science papers by current and former students that should be soon submitted. LPSC abstracts have also been edited for the grad and undergrad students in Atlanta. Now she’s trying to finish proofs on the chapter and this weekly-ish update!! Andy has been working hard to bring the in situ microscope designed for Icefin closer to being ready or field operations, and has made great progress with the extra time. Dan has been working on the redesign of Icefin’s power system and collecting various media to pass on to the BBC and NOVA crews working with the MELT team. Dan is looking forward to helping be team cameraman along with David and Aurora while we’re out at Thwaites. And while we would all have rather been out in the field, having the chance to go to the Helo Hanger concert was a social highlight of the season. McMurdo is an incredibly artistic and talented community, and getting to see several of our friends and colleagues play life music is always a treat, and ran the gamut from folk music to indie rock to a Green Day cover band.

Figure 6: Dan cleans the sea water tank in the Crary Lab as the Icefin team prepares to deploy to Thwaites. Lots of gear return and space cleaning happened this week!
Figure 6: Dan cleans the sea water tank in the Crary Lab as the Icefin team prepares to deploy to Thwaites. Lots of gear return and space cleaning happened this week!

Figure 7: Gemma from BBC films Icefin being driven up to Science Cargo.
Figure 7: Gemma from BBC films Icefin being driven up to Science Cargo.

While at McMurdo the MELT portion of the Icefin team had the opportunity to work with a film crew representing BBC News and BBC Frozen Planet II. Britney gave an interview describing Icefin and its role on the ITGC initiative, as well as insight into how she became a planetary and earth scientist. The BBC team then filmed Britney, Dan, and Andy preparing the vehicle to be sent to the deep field. The three person BBC team and ITGC lead David Vaughn of BAS have been fun additions to the crew, bringing a different perspective on the potential reach of these critical activities. We’re honored to be a part of it!

Figure 8: Justin, Gemma and Ben from BBC with Icefin in the Icefin Crary Lab “studio.”
Figure 8: Justin, Gemma and Ben from BBC with Icefin in the Icefin Crary Lab “studio.”

Figure 9: Some of the weather contributing to our delays was rather wonderful! Huge fluffy snow came down over three days, culminating in a massive snowball “fight” on Sunday. Mostly we just ran around and tossed snow in the air.
Figure 9: Some of the weather contributing to our delays was rather wonderful! Huge fluffy snow came down over three days, culminating in a massive snowball “fight” on Sunday. Mostly we just ran around and tossed snow in the air.

This update would be remiss without mentioning the absolutely herculean efforts of several parts of the community over the past few weeks.

First and foremost, the WAIS Divide and LTG camp staff have been real heroes, working with a fraction of the people they had planned to get the camp up and running, establishing runways and weather reports, and supporting the flotilla of small aircraft who have been keeping the Thwaites dream alive! Cargo movements and camp activities have been underway despite the weather and small crew, the camp mechanics have done a fabulous job getting the traverse equipment up and running, and the carp team now has the camp ready for full time science support. They’ve been doing all of this in heaps of Condition 1 weather, i.e. REALLY HORRIBLY AWFUL. We owe these guys a ton!

Figure 10: Another time-honored tradition in McMurdo: trying, and failing, to prevent getting the crud. Britney looks forward to one day being reunited with her real voice.
Figure 10: Another time-honored tradition in McMurdo: trying, and failing, to prevent getting the crud. Britney looks forward to one day being reunited with her real voice.

Figure 11: Crevasse rescue training with Catrin, MELT team mountaineer.
Figure 11: Crevasse rescue training with Catrin, MELT team mountaineer.

Next up: the KBA and BAS pilots. These teams fly into challenging places and make great things happen. Their efforts to get the landing sites surveyed for safe landings, and taking care of all of our cargo and passengers is absolutely critical.

Figure 12: Andy practices crevasse descent.
Figure 12: Andy practices crevasse descent.

Figure 13: Ready to get out to Thwaites!!!
Figure 13: Ready to get out to Thwaites!!!

Finally: the implementer team, lead by Leslie Blank and Nick Gillett. Every time there is a delay, it changes the plans downstream, and this team has been doing an amazing job of staying on their toes, and keeping things moving forward. It’s easy to feel trapped and get down when these delays occur, but the implementer team has been doing a remarkable job of juggling unknown weather and excitable science teams. So that’s it for now! 

Michelle Babcock from the GT Icefin team will be sending out some blurbs from us while we’re out in the field. Enrica and crew will pick up the bulky emails and photos when they return from Kamb, currently sometime just before or after the new year. Brit, Dan and Andy will be out in the field until probably middle to late February, so look for our next check in around Feb 1. Happy holidays to you all out there, and thanks so much for everything you do to support us, from watching cats to sending treats, to fixing machinery, and everything in between!

This year the field team for Icefin consists of:
Britney Schmidt, Matt Meister, Dan Dichek, Anthony Spears, Justin Lawrence, Ben Hurwitz, Andy Mullen, Peter Washam, and Enrica Quartini.

RISE UPhttps://schmidt.eas.gatech.edu/project-rise-up/
MELThttps://schmidt.eas.gatech.edu/thwaites-melt/
ITGChttps://thwaitesglacier.org
RISPhttps://www.instagram.com/the_ross_ice_shelf_programme/

For more updates, pictures, and videos, find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @icefinrobot

On the eve of deployment

(Note: This post was written before a week-long delay due to weather and before Matt, our lead engineer, managed to make it out, but most of it still holds.)

I’m anxious.

Not nervous. Anxious.

Our bags are packed. The vehicle and it’s associated spares, tools, and other miscellany have been boxed and are sitting in the airfield waiting to be loaded into a Basler tomorrow for our deep field deployment to the Kamb Ice Stream.

The anxiety comes from the waiting.

Three years of waiting for this to happen.

The deep field.

Maybe that should read “The Deep Field”.

It feels like something that’s so far away, both spatially and temporally. But within twelve hours, we’ll be heading there to do something that nobody has ever done before.

Three years of preparing.

More for Britney. I can’t imagine her anxiety levels. And she won’t even be there when the vehicle accomplishes its mission, its purpose, for the first time.

(Don’t worry, we’ll take pictures.)

660 meters of ice. That’s 2165 feet. Half a mile. With a 14″ wide hole down, down, down to the bottom. To the underside of the Ross Ice Shelf.

The Ross!

The largest ice shelf in the world. (By area only, as Peter keeps saying; by volume, the Filchner-Ronne is larger).

And we’re going to the bottom.

The anxiety is real.

Does that come across in this blog? Are you anxious with me?

I’ve never been to The Deep Field before. I hope I packed right. Mostly that’s base layers, socks, and a toothbrush.

A month in the middle of nowhere.

Never before will I have been so far from, well, anything.

KIS-1 (“Kamb ice stream 1”), also called HWD-1 (“Hot water drill 1”), is located at 82.77S, 156.57E. The nearest anything is Simple Dome camp, at 81.65417S, 149.005E. And that’s a field camp, not exactly a bustling place. But that would be the closest actual place, 105 miles approximately north.

Select deep-field deployment locations for USAP and ANZ
The Ross Ice Shelf and surrounding region with select USAP and ANZ deep field sites marked. McMurdo and Scott Base locations are marked separately.

That’s an 11 minute flight, for those counting at home, according to WolframAlpha. Or 760 microseconds, if you’re a photon.

Looking at it from that perspective, it’s possible I’ve been farther from people before.

But I don’t think that it’ll feel that way once we’re there.

Due to some unforeseen circumstances (the C-17 delays and the weather at other sites delaying flights), we’ve gotten lucky. We’ll be flying out a touch earlier than expected, and we’ll be flying with the drillers. So we’ll be among the first out there. This is extremely valuable; the Thwaites project has been massively behind due to the same flight delays, and thus all flights from McMurdo have been pointed towards their staging ground at WAIS Divide (79.4675 S, 112.0864 E). Thus we need to get a flight to KIS-1 before the Thwaites flights start taking people. Because then we become a much lower priority for USAP. Which is fair; Thwaites is a $25 million project, whereas KIS-1 is not even a US-sponsored field camp.

The Basler we’ll be flying is a modified DC-3. A DC-3! The plane was around prior to WWII! The Baslers, though, have excellent records in Antarctica. They have upgraded avionics and engines, modified fuselage and wings, and a host of other new features. Which is reassuring. I was a little perturbed when I was told it was a DC-3.

By the time you read this, we’re likely to already be in camp, setting up tents, building snow walls to ward off the wind, and checking out the vehicle. I’ve been told that The Deep Field focuses you. You’re forced to have singular purpose. Distractions are removed from sight and mind.

But man, am I anxious.

 

Project RISE UP Could Help Scientists Explore Europa’s Ice-Covered Ocean

Based in McMurdo Station, Antarctica for the first part of their 2019 field season, the team on Project RISE UP is using its underwater oceanographer robot Icefin to study environmental and biological factors that influence habitability in oceans beneath ice.

Project RISE UP, an acronym which stands for “Ross Ice Shelf and Europa Underwater Probe”, is using Icefin to explore ice-ocean environments and the limits of life here on Earth, in order to help develop techniques that might be used for future exploration of ice-ocean ecosystems.

NASA confirmed in 2019 that Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, had plumes of water vapor above its surface, which scientists had long expected from the ice-covered world. In addition, using observations from ground-based telescopes, “scientists have found strong evidence that beneath the ice crust is an ocean of liquid water or slushy ice,” according to NASA. These and other factors make Europa a prime subject in the search for other habitable worlds in our solar system.

Georgia Tech graduate student and member of the RISE UP team in Antarctica, Justin Lawrence‘s thesis is a major driver of work being done in the 2019 field season. He said the science and technology being developed through RISE UP could be used in the future exploration of icy worlds in our solar system, such as Europa.

“For my thesis, I’m mapping biological water mass properties including cellular abundance and microbial diversity with physical water properties such as temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen,” Lawrence said. “When combined, these variables help us understand how nutrient and carbon inputs from the open ocean and melting ice influence habitability below ice.”

In other words, studying biological and environmental factors that influence life in ice-ocean ecosystems here on Earth, will help scientists understand habitability in ice-covered oceans elsewhere.

“Earth is not the only body in our solar system with a liquid, salty ocean, and other ocean worlds such as Jupiter’s moon Europa might prove habitable to novel forms of life,” Lawrence explained. “To better understand how ecosystems under ice could work on other planets, we are developing hardware (Icefin), software, and scientific methods to first understand the interactions between life and ice in Antarctica.”

 

The diagram depicts the unique circulation patterns that result from atmospheric cooling of the surface ocean, sea ice formation, ocean currents, and ice shelf melting to distribute nutrients below Ross Ice Shelf
The diagram above depicts the unique circulation patterns that result from atmospheric cooling of the surface ocean, sea ice formation, ocean currents, and ice shelf melting to distribute nutrients below Ross Ice Shelf. The Ross Ice Shelf, located in Antarctica, is a floating mass of ice the size of Spain, which gets up to nearly 1 kilometer thick.

In addition to research being conducted at McMurdo Station in the 2019 field season, RISE UP will also fly with Icefin to the Ross Ice Shelf grounding zone, in collaboration with New Zealand’s Ross Ice Shelf Programme, where they will deploy Icefin along with other oceanographic sensors through a 35 cm wide, 700 m deep hole in the ice to explore the ocean below (as shown in the diagram above).