At the changing poles, a new kind of field work

Traveling to the poles is nothing new to me. But things at the poles are changing and with this trip my job will be to help measure and understand this change.

This is the first installment of a series of reports on the 2009/2010 research season in Antarctica by polar scientist Nick Frearson.

Traveling to the poles is nothing new to me. I have been to both polar regions several times and with each trip I am struck by their solitude, expansiveness and beauty. But things at the poles are changing and with this trip my job will be to help measure and understand this change.

My name is Nick Frearson and I am an engineer traveling to Antarctica with the ICE Bridge Mission organized by NASA and including my home institution Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and the University of Kansas.

The ice sheets at both the north and south pole are undergoing rapid change – shrinking at rates that are much faster than scientists had predicted. Scientists have used satellites to measure ice sheet change from space, but the satellite’s short life and their limitations in measuring beneath the ice, means we are missing critical information. The ICE Bridge mission provides us the first opportunity to acquire a time series of ice surface and bottom measurements in places where the ice sheets are undergoing rapid change, helping us to understand the ‘how’ and ‘when’ of ice sheet change and sea level rise.

ICE Bridge is a new type of field season for me. Our ‘field camp’ is not on the continent of Antarctica. We are operating out of Punta Arenas, Chile using large DC8 airplanes as our ‘field vehicles’ setting out for daily flights of 10-11 hours.

Measurements are collected from the air as it allows us to cover more territory, and because of the poor conditions in this area of the continent with surfaces riddled with crevasses, broken ice and calving icebergs. My job is to oversee one of the instruments fitted to the DC-8. We will rotate time on the flights in order to minimize the extra weight on the plane. Extra weight means extra fuel, and we are using all our fuel to make the lengthy flights to the continent.

In the weeks we are on this mission we will be flying over the fasting changing sections of the Antarctic ice sheet.

With each flight we hope to learn more about the mechanisms and processes that are driving this rapid transformation along the coastal regions of the Antarctic peninsula, and the Western Antarctic ice sheet.

More to come in the weeks ahead …

Nick Frearson is a senior engineer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory specializing in providing and maintaining airborne geophysics installations for use in both the Arctic and Antarctica. Nick has spent several seasons in the field in both the north and south polar regions, most recently as part of the International Polar Year AGAP team that mapped the large mountain range hidden under the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. Nick will be working as part of the ICE Bridge project.