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Understanding Two Big Ice Cubes

ICESat will use lasers to measure elevations across the world's ice sheets,and the results of his work will be critical to the process of validating data from the satellite.
Orono - April 9, 2001
In a world that measures everything from hemlines to the speed of light, the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets present a special challenge. They are ancient and complex, the two most massive ice cubes on the planet.

Whether they are shrinking or growing has become one of the central questions in the study of global change and a focus of research in the Institute for Quaternary and Climate Studies at the University of Maine.

The Institute has a tradition in polar studies and ice sheet behavior stretching back to its founding in 1972. UMaine scientists have worked to understand the physical processes that control ice sheet movement and the steps leading to their collapse after the end of the last Ice Age. The latest research is aimed at understanding how ice sheets respond to factors such as changes in climate.

"We use GPS technology to make measurements of the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland," says Gordon Hamilton, a research assistant professor.

"We want to understand if the ice sheets are currently changing size and contributing to sea level rise. The current estimate is that of the average two millimeters of global sea level rise that occurs annually, we can explain one millimeter by thermal expansion of the oceans and groundwater pumping. The remaining contribution is unknown, but an assumption is melting of the ice sheets in the polar regions."

Scientists do not yet know how the ice sheets are likely to respond if average global temperatures rise in the future. If snowfall increases over Antarctica and Greenland, possibly due to a warmer, moister atmosphere, the ice sheets could grow. However, if the sea continues to rise or increased temperatures warm the ice, the ice sheets will flow faster and could shrink.

Hamilton has spent the better part of the last decade perfecting field techniques to collect reliable data. His field experiments entail measuring the vertical velocity of ice and comparing that with snow accumulation rates derived from ice core analyses. If vertical velocity exceeds snow accumulation, the ice sheet is getting thinner, and vice versa.

When he began establishing monitoring stations in 1993 he drilled holes with a hand auger and placed empty coffee cans at the bottom to anchor poles deep in the Antarctic ice. To the poles, he attached a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver to determine very precisely the elevation of that particular point on the ice sheet. Repeat visits over several years provide velocities.

Today, Hamilton still calls his monitoring stations "coffee can sites," but he uses other tools such as a heated drill to melt hole into the ice and non-stretching aircraft wire that links a point at the bottom of the hole with the surface.

In the last eight years, he has placed more than three dozen sites on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and 12 more in Greenland. To get a picture of whether the ice is growing or shrinking in a region, he looks for areas that are well away from the fast moving ice streams.

So far, the results of work by Hamilton and others suggest that the ice sheets may be thinning at the edges but getting thicker inland. Nevertheless, some stations show little movement while others are rising or falling, and no clear pattern has emerged.

Hamilton and a colleague, Ian Whillans of The Ohio State University, are currently funded by the National Science Foundation to carry out measurements as part of the International Trans-Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE). The purpose of ITASE is to collect data that will help scientists understand the Antarctic environment and serve as a baseline for measurements of future changes.

Last November, Hamilton flew to McMurdo Station in Antarctica with UMaine colleagues Paul Mayewski, Zach Smith and Benjamin Cavallari. Joined by scientists from several other institutions, they crossed 750 miles (1,200 km) of some of the coldest, windiest terrain on Earth to collect ice cores and establish new monitoring stations.

"Ice sheets do not change much on the scale of a few decades," says Hamilton. "They're so large that it takes a very long time for them to respond to changes in the environment. It's currently thought, for example, that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is still responding to the end of the last Ice Age about ten thousand years ago.

"The vertical movements of points on the ice sheet are very slow and constant over a 500 to 1000-year time frame. Having said that, we are still unsure how fast future changes might occur if climate enters an unstable phase."

Hamilton equipped several of the Antarctic stations with continuous data loggers, but such devices are expensive. Most of the stations consist only of the taught wires anchored five to 20 meters deep in the ice. Hamilton will return to Antarctica over the next few years to make new GPS measurements at each station.

Data collected by Hamilton will assume new importance after the December, 2001, launch of ICESat (Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite) by NASA. ICESat will use lasers to measure elevations across the world's ice sheets,and the results of his work will be critical to the process of validating data from the satellite.

"We know the elevation of our stations and the rates of ice thickness changes, so we can compare our numbers to those coming from the satellite. If there's a discrepancy, we'll know that the satellite has a problem."

In advance of ICESat's launch, Hamilton and colleagues have been conducting measurements in Greenland as part of the Program for Arctic Regional Climate Assessment (PARCA).

This NASA-funded initiative combines ground-based GPS work with overflights by a research aircraft equipped with a laser similar to that onboard ICESat. PARCA is providing valuable experience that will guide future work interpreting data from the satellite mission.

Hamilton has a PhD from the University of Cambridge and came to UMaine from the Byrd Polar Research Center at The Ohio State University and the Norsk Polarinstitutt in Oslo, Norway. He is a native of Scotland. University of Maine

Related Links
Institute for Quaternary and Climate Studies
ICEsat at Goddard
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A One-stop Shop For Ice Core Data
 Washington - Jan 24, 2001
Data from ice cores from glaciers and mountain summits allow scientists a glimpse into the frozen past, providing valuable information about the global climate that existed in recent years and thousands of years ago.

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