Photo Friday: The Glaciers of Antarctica

Posted by on Oct 21, 2016

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Antarctica, the world’s southernmost continent, is a hostile realm of ice and snow, fictionalized in our popular culture by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and further romanticized by real-world scientific explorers eager to lay claim to the region.

Humans who venture to the southernmost pole do so by way of the Antarctic Peninsula, where they may visit Port Lockroy, site of a former British research station, or take in by cruise the vast terrain and wildlife of the region. Multiple countries also operate scientific camps and research programs in more remote locales of Antarctica where science teams study awe-inspiring glaciers and ice sheets throughout the year.

The largest ice sheet in the world, Antarctica is composed of around 98% continental ice and 2% barren rock. The ancient ice is incredibly thick, although it has been thinning due to the effects of climate change.

Cotton Glacier flows eastward between Sperm Bluff and Queer Mountain in Victoria Land (Source: Kelly Speelman/National Science Foundation).

Cotton Glacier in Victoria Land (Source: Kelly Speelman/National Science Foundation).

Several nations have made overlapping claims to the Antarctic continent. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in Washington in 1959, attempts to maintain peace, by neither denying or providing recognition to these territorial claims. Today, a total of 53 countries have signed the treaty, including Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom, countries that have all made specific claims in the region. The United States and Russia, meanwhile, have maintained a “basis of claim” in the region. Scientists of these nations conduct field research from Antarctica bases to gather greater knowledge about climatic changes affecting the larger world.

The Transantarctic Mountains, glaciers and crevasse fields (Source: Corey Anthony/National Science Foundation).

The Transantarctic Mountains, glaciers and crevasse fields (Source: Corey Anthony/National Science Foundation).

Studying glaciers in Antarctica is of great impact due to the influence of melting glaciers on global sea levels. In addition, Antarctica plays a primary role in the world’s climate. According to Antarcticglaciers.org, “Cold water is formed in Antarctica. Because freshwater ice at the surface freezes onto icebergs, this water is not only cold, it is salty. This cold, dense, salty water sinks to the sea floor, and drives the global ocean currents, being replaced with warmer surface waters from the equatorial regions.”

The Transantarctic Mountains, glaciers and crevasse fields (Source: Corey Anthony/National Science Foundation)

The Transantarctic Mountains, glaciers and crevasse fields (Source: Corey Anthony/National Science Foundation).

Ice sheets in Antarctica are fragile and a number have recently collapsed, causing glacial thinning and threatening a rise in sea levels. Some scientists are concerned that the collapsing ice sheets may not be just a natural occurrence but one more closely linked to a warming planet.

A Tucker tractor has been drifted over at Pine Island Glacier (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).

A Tucker tractor has been drifted over at Pine Island Glacier (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).

The Pine Island Glacier is one of the “fastest receding glaciers in the Antarctic” and a major contributor to our rising sea levels, according to the U.S. Antarctic Program. Scientists have observed an ice shelf on the Pine Island Glacier that is rapidly thinning, pushing the glacier toward the sea.

A black and white aerial view of Pine Island Glacier Ice Shelf shows its heavily crevassed surface (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation)

A black and white aerial view of Pine Island Glacier Ice Shelf shows its heavily crevassed surface (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).

A team of scientists constructed a field camp in 2012-2013 to study the impacts of climate change on the glacier, also known as PIG.

The first tent erected at the main field camp on Pine Island Glacier (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).

The first tent erected at the main field camp on Pine Island Glacier (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).

The PIG field camp staff learned to contend with adverse weather conditions in the area and events like windstorms, a common occurrence in this remote and hostile part of the world.

Pine Island Glacier field camp staff attempt to excavate a mountain tent that collapsed during a wind storm (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).

Pine Island Glacier field camp staff attempt to excavate a mountain tent that collapsed during a wind storm (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).

Helicopters provide support to field projects such as the one conducted in 2012-2013 at the Pine Island Glacier.

(Source: August Allen/ National Science Foundation).

A helicopter is unloaded from an LC-130 at the Pine Island Glacier field project (Source: August Allen/ National Science Foundation).

Elsewhere in Antarctica is the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the largest ice-free area in the region—approximately 15,000-square-kilometers— where science teams perform research projects on glaciers, lakes, and soils, funded by the National Science Foundation. The area is an extreme landscape, but it can also be a useful environment for scientists hoping to study the impacts of climate change.

A glacier pool in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica (Source: Peter Rejcek.

A glacier pool in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica (Source: Peter Rejcek/National Science Foundation).

In Antarctica, teams of scientists can extract old ice flowing from the ends of glaciers in large quantities rather than by drilling directly into the ancient ice sheet. Around 350 kilograms of ice is then melted into a vacuum-sealed container to capture around 35 liters of ancient air. The ancient air was preserved by the ice for thousands of years. Scientists hope to research the ancient air and examine the impact of methane gas on past climate change, according to the U.S. Antarctic Program.

Scientist Vasilii Petrenko loads an ice melter at Taylor Glacier (Source: Vasilii Petrenko/National Science Foundation).

Scientist Vasilii Petrenko loads an ice melter at Taylor Glacier (Source: Vasilii Petrenko/National Science Foundation).

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