Headline News - Antarctica

NASA Glacier Fly-Through
Swooping through the trenches of the Death Star likely ranks high on every geek's bucket list, but even an earthbound version won't really do the trick. Fortunately, the folks at NASA have rigged up a passable alternative -- flying through a massive 19-mile crack across Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier.

Plugged In
Antarctica is a natural laboratory that draws hundreds of scientists down to the southern hemisphere each year to conduct research on everything from climate change to penguins and whales to astrophysics. However, an experiment under way this winter falls a bit outside the norm. The National Science Foundation (NSF)and Department of Energy (DOE) have teamed up on a project to test just how well an all-electric vehicle might fare in the coldest place on Earth.

Return of the dinosaur (hunters)

Paleontologists working on a high peak in the central Transantarctic Mountains have recovered more than half of the fossils belonging to the first dinosaur found in Antarctica — 20 years after its initial discovery. And the unearthing of yet two new Early Jurassic dinosaur species near the top of 4,528-meter-high Mount Kirkpatrick promises to keep scientists busy for years to come preparing and describing the important finds. William Hammer, a professor at Augustana College, led the team that discovered Cryolophosaurus, a nearly 7-meter-long carnivore two decades ago while working from a field camp near the Beardmore Glacier. "In 90-91, we didn’t know what we had except that it had to be entirely new because it was the first dinosaur,” said Hammer, who returned to the Beardmore region for a third time with his largest team to date in an effort to recover as much of the meat-eating dinosaur as possible. "It will be one of the most, if not the most, complete predator from the Early Jurassic that we have. It will be quite an impressive specimen,” said Peter Makovicky, curator at the Field Museum, where Cryolophosaurus will eventually reside.

No Bones About It

The two snowmobiles quickly turn to small specks on the white snowfield. Mountaineer Brian McCullough is in the lead, a thick rope secures his machine to one driven by scientist Stephen Hasiotis. The two men are also harnessed and roped together. They’re making the first snowmobile traverse on this route to a feature called Wahl Glacier. A trail from a large field camp in the central Transantarctic Mountains had led them more than halfway, threading through a crevasse field, and up and down rises in the valley. Now they’re in virgin territory, and McCullough expertly steers to a large rock outcrop the team has dubbed "the castle” near Wahl Glacier. Hasiotis, a paleontologist from the University of Kansas, hopes to add to an already impressive trove of finds based on previous reports of fossils in the area. Hasiotis isn’t your typical Antarctic fossil hunter.

Ice loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is rising to the top as the main contributor to higher sea level. A new study published this month in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical union , says ice sheet mass loss is accelerating. Ice sheets are overtaking Earth’s mountain glaciers and ice caps to become the dominant contributor to global sea level rise, much sooner than model forecasts have predicted. Each year over the course of the study (1992-2009), the two ice sheets lost a combined average of 36.3 gigatonnes more than they did the year before. In 2006, the total loss was 475 gigatonnes, enough to raise global sea level by an average of 1.3 millimeters. That’s compared to 402 gigatonnes from mountain glaciers and ice caps, with a year-over-year acceleration rate three times smaller than that of the ice sheets.

Christchurch Earthquake

Most people have seen the pictures of the crumpled Christchurch Cathedral or watched the video of a woman plucked from the roof of a collapsed building to safety by a fire crew. But was the destruction wrought by the 6.3-magnitude earthquake on Feb. 22 as bad as it looked in media reports? It was worse, said Mel Moore. Moore and his wife Sally Moore were among the hundreds of U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) participants who were just leaving the Ice as the summer field season was winding down when the quake hit the city center. The Moores were in a small, cramped antique store in Christchurch’s central business district (CBD) when the ground started shaking and the lights went out. Mel Moore swatted a plate away that he saw falling toward his wife, as glass and ceramics crashed to the floor. After the earth stopped moving, the Moores and the shop owner, bleeding from a head wound, attempted to leave the store. "The way out was blocked by all the bookcases that had fallen over and the broken debris. The owner said not to worry about breaking anything, just get us out of the shop. As Sally says, I went into ‘Mel-dozer’ mode and quickly cleared a trail,” said Mel Moore, a man who would size up well on an NFL offensive line. Once outside, the scene was chaotic. Sirens and alarms echoed around the city; the air was filled with dust. Amid the confusion, the Moores eventually headed to the safety of the open space at Victoria Square.

Extreme Environment

Lake Vida isn’t a particularly accommodating place to live. Consider that the Antarctic lake would hardly fall under the definition of "lake” for most people. It certainly wouldn’t be found on anyone’s top ten list of favorite fishing holes. In fact, neither fish nor much else could survive in the hypersaline lake, which appears to be frozen from the surface to nearly the bottom more than 20 meters down. Oxygen is completely absent from Lake Vida, which is up to seven times saltier than seawater. Its chemistry is just weird, with the highest nitrous oxide levels of any natural water body on Earth. A briny liquid that courses through pockets and channels within this anaerobic environment exists at minus 13.5 degrees centigrade. Remember that the ocean never gets colder than a couple of degrees below zero.

Super Breeders
Fittest Adélie penguins appear to sustain colony populations. For 15 years, U.S. researchers in Antarctica have watched the ebb and flow of Adélie penguin colony populations around the Ross Sea, recording the births and deaths, and the lives in between, of the continent’s iconic seabird in order to understand the patterns. They’ve observed the large-scale changes over the summer seasons that have seen some colonies balloon to historic numbers, while at least one has plummeted to a near-record low. Now the scientists are focusing on why some individuals within the colonies are more successful than others in terms of foraging and breeding success.

Flying High
When an international team of scientists lands at McMurdo Station in early August 2010, it will be dark and cold as only an Antarctic winter can be. And that's a good thing if you're interested in learning about what's happening in the atmosphere above the continent at one of the harshest times of the year. The mostly French and American researchers will launch as many as 18 long-duration balloons to float in the atmosphere at about 20 kilometers altitude. The launch pad will be from a field camp on the sea ice in front of the U.S. Antarctic Program's biggest research station. These super-pressure balloons, capable of maintaining a level altitude, will carry a host of different instruments for measuring everything from basic atmospheric properties like temperature and humidity, including their profiles to the ice surface, to the processes involved in ozone depletion over Antarctica.

Fishy Business
Climate change may be to blame for disappearance of Antarctic silverfish Adélie penguins across parts of the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula don't appear to be getting a balanced diet these days. What's missing? A sardine-sized fish called Pleuragramma antarcticum, more commonly referred to as the Antarctic Silverfish. Once upon a time, as the story goes, Antarctic silverfish swam by the thousands in places like Arthur Harbor at the northern end of the peninsula. That doesn't happen anymore" said Joseph Torres , a professor in the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida .

Ocean Observations

Palmer LTER scientists call for new strategy to take measurements
Underwater robots and marine animals outfitted with scientific sensors are part of a proposed strategy for monitoring polar oceans into the 21st century, particularly a stretch of sea along the western Antarctic Peninsula, which is undergoing rapid climate changes.
The proposal comes in the June 18, 2010 issue of the journal Science by a group of scientists who conduct research in Antarctica, most of whom currently work on the Palmer Long Term Ecological Research (PAL LTER) program.