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Researchers to Probe Antarctica’s Rock Glaciers for Climate Clues

Swanger’s Team Embarks on Two-Month Expedition to the Frozen Continent

Student in Antarctica

Myles Danforth ’15 collects rock samples during the 2014 field visit to Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys.

10/16/2015
By Edwin L. Aguirre

A team of researchers led by Asst. Prof. Kate Swanger of the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EEAS) is spending two months in Antarctica to study the history of rock glaciers and buried glacial ice in the McMurdo Dry Valleys region, which contains the longest climate record on the continent. The research is funded by a three-year, $331,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Due to current climate trends and the high probability that average global temperatures will continue to rise, it is important to the scientific community and to society to understand how Antarctica’s massive ice deposits have responded to climate change in the past.

“We will focus on rock glaciers, which are flowing mixtures of ice and sediments commonly found throughout the alpine and high-latitude regions on Earth as well as on the planet Mars,” says Swanger, who is the project’s principal investigator.

“Our research aims to address such questions as: ‘What environmental and climatological conditions foster long-term preservation of rock glaciers in Antarctica?’ ‘What role do rock glaciers play in the evolution of the Antarctic landscape and the local water cycle?’ and ‘What can rock glaciers reveal about the extent and timing of previous advances of glaciers?’ ” she explains.

Swanger notes that the McMurdo Dry Valleys host the world’s southernmost terrestrial ecosystem, complete with soil, streams, lake micro-organisms and mosses. “Rock glaciers are an important and poorly studied source of meltwater and nutrients for these ecosystems, and we hope our research will shed light on the glacial and hydrological history of the region,” she says. 

The project includes two separate field visits to the Dry Valleys. The first one, which lasted from Dec. 3, 2014 to Jan.15, 2015, included Swanger and EEAS graduate student Seth Roberts and senior Myles Danforth as well as a researcher from East Carolina University.

Joining Swanger for this year’s visit, from Oct. 15 to Dec. 15, is UMass Lowell postdoctoral researcher Kelsey Winsor. Also with them are a Ph.D. student from the University of Pennsylvania, a research scientist from Brown University and a ground-penetrating radar expert from Alaska. 

“For this season, we’ll take core samples to determine the age of the subsurface ice,” says Winsor. “We’ll use the ground-penetrating radar, or GPR, to see how deep the ice goes and how thick the sediments are. We’ll also take samples to analyze the origin and chemistry of the ice and salts. And we’re performing maintenance and installing cameras for time-lapse photography, which will let us study how often liquid water flows in the normally frozen environment.”

This research is important to planetary scientists studying Mars, she says. “It’s relevant to future NASA crewed Mars missions because astronauts would need water supply and they might be able to get it by mining buried ice. We’re also studying something called water tracks, which appear to be the same dark features that just received a lot of media attention for being the first definitive sign of liquid flowing water on Mars. The more we know about the water tracks, the better we’ll understand the Martian hydrologic system.”

A Trip of a Lifetime

“Last year’s trip was actually my first to Antarctica and my very first trip outside the U.S.,” says Danforth, who graduated in May.

“It was a great experience. I got to see a bit of Christchurch, New Zealand, our jumping off point to Antarctica, which was cool. The views of the frozen continent are amazing! With no trees or buildings for perspective, distances and sizes across the barren landscape can be deceiving. Things look a lot closer, and smaller, than they really are. For example, I look across the valley at a rock and think, huh, that’s a good-sized boulder, only to walk to it and find it’s almost the size of a house!” he says.

What kind of challenges did he encounter there?

Sleeping in tents for weeks with no shower was rough, he says. “We wiped ourselves down with baby towelettes every day to try and stay clean. Also going to the bathroom — an outside bucket — was tough. The constant wind and subfreezing temperatures made it a less-than-enjoyable experience,” he recalls. 

But the Antarctica trip did help open doors of opportunity for him. “My experience in field work is the main reason why I have a job today working for Hager GeoScience in Woburn, Mass. The company does a lot of GPR work, which we conducted down in Antarctica.”

For Winsor, this is the first time she is actually stepping foot on the continent. “I was on a research cruise last year that got close enough to the Antarctic coast to see an ice shelf. I’m eager to get into the field to see the landforms that I’ve been staring at in satellite photos. You get a much better sense of how different features — the glaciers, soils, streams, etc. — interact when you roam around them in person.”

With no Starbucks, TV, radio or Internet, how do the researches spend their free time, if any, on the continent? 

“I read a lot of sci-fi books. We also sat around and talked a lot after dinner,” says Danforth. 

Adds Winsor: “I don’t think we’ll have a lot of downtime unless the weather gets really bad. When I can, I’m hoping to take some extra hikes to explore around our campsites. I think the surroundings will feel very alien and I want to soak it all in. I’m also actually really excited to do some reflection away from the Internet. And, the isolation might actually encourage me to finish reading some short stories and learn Thai — stuff I want to do normally but often doesn’t have the time for.”

To see photos of Antarctica from the previous visit, go to the university’s Photo Gallery. You can also follow the current adventures of Swanger and her team via this blog.