'Come Hell or High Water': How U.S. and U.K. Scientists Got to Map East Antarctica

In Antarctica. Scientists outfitted a World War II era plane for the project.

University of Texas, Austin

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—A presentation at the American Geophysical Union here yesterday offered preliminary findings from a 5-year project to map the subglacial topography of East Antarctic. And while ICECAP will add to the growing evidence that much more of the East Antarctic ice sheet sits below sea level than had once been thought, how the researchers were able to get there is a story in and of itself.

International collaborations usually come about when governments hammer out an agreement to conduct a joint project. By contrast, ICECAP began as a pitch by scientists to the U.K. and U.S. governments. "NASA and NSF couldn't cut it," Donald Blankenship, a glaciologist at the University of Texas, Austin, told ScienceInsider this week, explaining that proposals for logistical support in 2004 and 2005 were turned down by the space agency and the National Science Foundation. "We had to basically create our collaboration from scratch." Scientists were bent on getting there, he said, "come hell or high water."

A central challenge was that an East Antarctica ice survey was not on any government list of prioritized science needs in 2004.

Instead, researchers spent the 1990s doing ice-penetrating radar scans of the more accessible West Antarctic ice sheet. In 2004 and 2005, scientists tackled the more remote parts of the sheet with a small plane, called a Twin Otter, supported by C-130 cargo planes that delivered fuel to the target areas. The cost of such expeditions can run into the tens of millions of dollars, Blankenship said.

The magnitude of East Antarctica precluded such an approach, he said. "It was very clear we couldn't do East Antarctica that way." The scientists wanted to scan a 1.8-million-square-kilometer swath of the continent never before mapped at high resolution. "It required a completely new way of doing business," he said.

The scientists came up with a proposal for NSF to pay the salaries of U.S. researchers involved in the project, while the U.K. National Environment Research Council would provide logistical and scientific support, including a World War II-era plane and ground support. The Australian government, which operates a base with two ice runways on the Aurora Basin, was also interested in the project. "The Australians wanted to do [an ice shelf assessment], but it was a bit beyond their capacity at that point," he said. The total cost of the project is about $1 million a year, incredibly cheap by Antarctic standards because the team was able to avoid the need for expensive C-130 flights by relying on coastal bases that are supplied by ship.

The plane is a DC-3 propeller plan built by Bassler in 1942 and refurbished with dual jet turbines behind each propeller. In WWII, it towed gliders across the English Channel. It was the "largest commercially available plane outfitted with skis," said Blankenship.

The ancient vehicle carries a high-tech payload, including a magnetometer, ice-penetrating radar, and extremely accurate GPS equipment. "We've gotten to the point where the instruments are as expensive as the plane," said Blankenship of the sturdy workhorse, which flies three scientists while two researchers process the data on the ground. "We're producing terabytes of data, so we need that ground support."

The original plan had been to go for 3 years, but last year the research was extended for two more years as part of NASA's IceBridge project. By adding French and Italian partners, the scientists have more collaborators, and, crucially, two more coastal bases.

Blankenship says the growing number of partners hasn't affected the logistics. "The effectiveness was a big surprise to us - how smoothly it worked."

And while vast amounts of data must still be collected and analyzed, the bottom line is already clear. "Much more of the bottom of East Antarctica is below sea level than we expected," he said, "and significant portions are in contact with the ocean." Those findings suggest that East Antarctica is much more susceptible to climate change than scientists had once thought.