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Measuring one of the world's largest glaciers

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Over two Antarctic summer seasons British Antarctic Survey (BAS) mounted an ambitious and challenging deep-field science campaign to one of the most remote places on Earth. -. For three months of each of the 2007 and 2008 austral summers three scientists and two field assistants camped in orange pyramid tents surviving on dried food and working in temperatures between –33 and +2° C. The nearest base was the BAS Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula, some 800 miles away.

The quest for glaciologists Robert Bingham, Julian Scott and Andy Smith was to determine what’s causing one of the world’s biggest glaciers to speed up, and how Pine Island Glacier, on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, will contribute to sea level rise. This is their story.

Weak underbelly

The vast continent of Antarctica is split into two major ice sheets grounded on bedrock. East and West Antarctica are separated by the Transantarctic Mountains. East Antarctica is the larger of the two and is thought to be relatively stable in terms of ice loss and potential sea-level rise. While the surface of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is far above sea level, the rock on which it rests is well below. As a 'marine ice sheet' the WAIS is vulnerable to flotation and collapse as sea level rises.

Pine Island Glacier Images
Pine Island Glacier is one of the most famous and one of the most remote ice-drainage basins in Antarctica. It became the focus for scientific attention in the 1990s when satellite observations revealed that it moves more ice into the sea each year than any other individual drainage basin in the world. Significantly, this contribution may also be increasing – satellite measurements show that the glacier flowed 10% faster and thinned by up to 1.6 metres per year during the 1990s. With no large floating ice shelf extension to protect it from a warming ocean Pine Island Glacier and neighbouring Thwaites Glacier are known as 'the weak underbelly of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.'

In the austral summer of 2004-05 scientists from BAS and the University of Texas mounted an extensive airborne campaign using radar, magnetic and gravity surveys. For the first time the scientists had data to enhance that gained from earlier satellite observations. By the austral summer of 2006-07 scientists were getting ready to make 'on the ground' observations that would, together with the satellite and airborne observations, give the best interpretation of ice thickness and flow on Pine Island Glacier. The ultimate goal is to improve computer models created to predict the future of Pine Island Glacier and assess its contribution to rising sea levels.

"This work was one of the most logistically challenging things I have done. We had to get it exactly right because it was exceptionally difficult to get planes in to re-supply us while we were out there."
Dr. Andy Smith
British Antarctic Survey


Sea ice conditions in the Amundsen Sea make ship access to Pine Island Glacier almost impossible so for the 2007 and 2008 field seasons Twin Otter aircraft were used to put the science teams on the ground. Mobilising planes from Rothera Research Station 800 miles was an operational and logistic challenge but was the only way for the team to find out what’s happening to the glacier. This was the first time that any science team were able conduct extensive fieldwork and over-snow surveys of the region.

Video: view from Pine Island Glacier campsite.

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It took several 7-10 hour Twin Otter flights (including fuel stops) to and from Rothera Research Station, to put skidoos, pyramid tents, around 5000 kg of science equipment and people at the Pine Island field camp. With no mountains or other landmarks protruding from the flat icescape, and no stars in the 24-hour daylight, the pilots and science teams navigated entirely by GPS.

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