Antarctic Peninsula Project Report

July 10, 2010  |   Antarctic Peninsula Project, Blog   |   admin  |   1 Comment

Antarctic Peninsula Project Report:  January 12 – 30, 2010

Thanks to a generous grant from the Kane Lodge Foundation, WRF launched its initial project on January 12, 2010.  The participants included: Ning Zeng, PhD, Principal Investigator; Jay S. Gregg, PhD, Research Assistant; and Sheldon Bart, Project Manager.

The team traveled to King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands, situated just off the Antarctic Peninsula.  Their objective was to seek physical evidence to corroborate a new conception of the carbon cycle advanced by Dr. Zeng.  An associate professor at the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science and the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center of the University of Maryland, Dr. Zeng’s research focus is the interaction between the biosphere and the atmosphere, and the implications for unraveling the riddles of climate dynamics.  He has published a series of papers developing a new theory of the relationship between the carbon cycle and ice-age cycles.  Dr. Zeng suggests that carbon becomes concentrated in the ground as glaciers advance over soil and vegetation, and slowly diffuses into the atmosphere when glaciers recede, accounting for a significant amount of the build-up of carbon dioxide in interglacial eras.  The team was equipped with a LI-8100 Automated Soil CO2 Flux System, a sensitive carbon-detecting instrument on loan from LI-COR Biological Sciences of Lincoln, Nebraska.

Bellingshausen Station

The WRF project took place in conjunction with an international Antarctic “summer” field school organized by Dr. Vladmir A. Alexeev, a Research Associate Professor at the International Arctic Research Center of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and Dr. Irina Repina of the Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Moscow.  A group of 15, including the WRF team; Alexeev; Repina; Dr. Igor Mokhov, Director of the Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics; Dr. Alexandr Gliko, Minister/ Secretary of the Earth Science Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Dr. Hanno Meyer, a geologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam, Germany; and Lindsay Bartholomew, an education and outreach specialist at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry assembled in Punta Arenas, Chile and departed for the Antarctic on January 16th, aboard a C-130 Hercules military transport plane operated by the Uruguayan Air Force.

On King George Island, the group was billeted at Russia’s Bellingshausen science station. Approximately 90% of King George Island is glaciated.  Bellingshausen Station is located on the east coast of Fildes Peninsula, a stubby limb of exposed, broken tableland on the southwest tip of King George Island.  Scientists living and working at Bellingshausen, including Dr. Hans-Ulrich Peter, an ecologist, and Dr. Bulat Mavlyudov, a glaciologist, participated in the summer school.

Dr. Mavlyudov guided the WRF team and the entire summer school group to the ice cap, a boundless mound of whiteness whose southern foot is some 2 miles north of Bellingshausen Station.  Dr. Mavlyudov has established 30 study sites on the ice cap approximately 100 meters apart.  Twice a week he ascends the dome, alone, to make observations.  At each site, he digs a trench about a meter deep to measure the layers of accumulated snow and weigh samples of snow.  He fills each trench before moving on to the next study site.  The database he has complied provides a profile of the action of the glacier over time.

Over a period of three days (January 18 to 20), Dr. Mavlyudov escorted the team and group along the jagged moraine that rims the slope of the ice dome like a brown belt running east – west.  A moraine is a ridge of sediment collected by a glacier in its travels.  Dr. Zeng and Dr. Gregg noted various loamy sites below the moraine from which the glacier had receded in the past twenty years.  It was feasible at these sites to prospect for ancient buried carbon.

On January 21st, the WRF team departed for the western moraine, accompanied by two members of the summer school group who were also conducting research in the field: Dr. Les Werner of the University of Wisconsin, and his research assistant, Christopher Johnson, a graduate student at Michigan Technological University.  Dr. Werner, a soil specialist, studies the evolution of microorganisms in glacial environments.

There were no obvious signs of carbon at the western moraine site.  The LI-COR machine, carried into the field, disassembled, in backpacks and assembled at the moraine, detected only a negligible carbon signature in the muddy ground.

Dr. Zeng Following the Eastern Moraine

On January 22nd, the WRF team trekked to a site along the eastern moraine, which had been identified by Dr. Zeng two days earlier.  Again, the LI-COR CO2 Flux System was separated into

its components and carried in the team’s backpacks.  The trail threaded through a narrow, rocky aisle between a wall of snow at the base of the ice dome and the lapping waves of Maxwell Bay at the eastern shore of Fildes Peninsula.

The team eventually reached a cove where, below the eastern moraine, Dr. Zeng observed an area of reddish-brown, crumb-like tufts—dead moss, an obvious sign of carbon.  The LI-COR machine was assembled and engaged, and at length a strong signal registered of carbon in the soil.  Dr. Zeng collected numerous samples at multiple locations.  (The samples will be subjected to laboratory analysis, and Dr. Zeng, at a later date, will provide WRF with a paper summarizing the results and conclusions.)

That evening the summer field school learned that its flight from King George Island back to Punta Arenas, originally scheduled for January 26th, had been cancelled.  In the heroic days of Antarctic exploration,  field parties were at the mercy of the Antarctic ice pack, the ring of ice that surrounds the continent.  If the ice extended too far north and was too thick, ships could not break through to retrieve expeditions.  Today, visitors are at the mercy of the weather and catch-as-catch-can air charter schedules.  Departing flights were planned for the 27th and the 28th, but the chances of the summer school group getting on board were iffy.

LI-COR Automated Soil CO2 Flux System in the Field

LI-COR Automated Soil CO2 Flux System in the Field

Meanwhile, a howling storm struck King George Island on the evening of the 23rd.  A window of opportunity opened on Sunday, January 24th, as the storm pushed the overcast out to sea and sunny skies prevailed.  Multiple flights were therefore scheduled, and the group departed King George Island on the last flight of the day of a C-130 Hercules transport operated by the Chilean Air Force.

While the summer school was in session at Bellingshausen Station, lectures were held each night in a spacious conference room at the rear of the administration building.  Seven professors and four graduate students made interesting presentations on such subjects as permafrost, glaciology, and global climate models.

Wilderness Research Foundation would like to express its profound thanks to the Kane Lodge Foundation, LI-COR Biological Sciences, Bellingshausen Station, Dr. Vladmir A. Alexeev, Dr. Irina Repina, the International Arctic Research Center, the Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics, and the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists for making this expedition possible.

Sheldon Bart
Wilderness Research Foundation
© 2010

1 Comment for this entry

  • Shannon Nichols

    December 26th, 2013 on 9:56 pm

    This is extraordinary!

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