Environment | OUR PLANET EARTH

Exploring Antarctica for key climate clues

The steamy hot days of summer make it very tempting to imagine an escape to the snow and ice of Antarctica, though few of us will ever have that chance. Shin Sugiyama, 39, a glaciologist at Hokkaido University, is one of the exceptions.

Sugiyama has recently spent more than two months exploring Antarctica, and I spoke to him by e-mail about his research in an interview that tracked him from Sapporo to a glacier in Switzerland to a conference in Ireland and back to Japan.

For three months, starting in early November last year, Sugiyama was part of a joint research project that included a Japanese team of five scientists, two mechanics and a doctor along with a nine-member team from Sweden.

Timed to coincide with the International Polar Year, 2007-2009, the Japanese-Swedish Antarctic Expedition (JASE) set out to gather information on ice and snow characteristics and on present and past climate conditions. The study was coordinated by Japan’s National Institute of Polar Research and by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat and Stockholm University.

In particular, the scientists wanted to find out more about the history of climate changes using a variety of techniques, including sampling surface snow, radar soundings of internal ice layers up to several thousand meters deep, depth soundings of subglacial lakes and landforms, and GPS mapping of surface topography.

The researchers set out in two groups, the Japanese from Japan’s Showa Station and the Swedish from their Wasa Station. Each group used four tracked vehicles, with the Japanese ones each towing seven sledges of food, fuel and scientific instruments. In total, the two teams spent 72 days traversing almost 3,000 km of barren snow and ice. On Dec. 27, halfway through their trips, the two teams met to exchange instruments, research and stories — and, of course, to have a party.

Then, on New Year’s Day, after exchanging some team members, the two groups began the return trip to their base camps. Sugiyama was one of two Japanese team members who traveled back to the coast with the Swedes, so offering him a unique chance to work and live with members of both teams. Below are some excerpts from our e-mail exchanges.

Where did you go and what route did you take? We flew from Cape Town in South Africa to a Russian station, Novolazarevskaya, on a flight operated by a Russian-based organization called the Antarctic Logistic Center International. There we caught a connecting flight to S16, a point about 30 km inland from Japan’s Syowa Station. Since Syowa is located on an island, all materials and snow vehicles used for the traverse were set up at S16 to avoid transportation over sea ice.

From S16 we traveled 1,000 km to Dome Fuji Station, which was established for deep ice-core drilling and was used until 2007. The station sits at an altitude of 3,810 meters, the highest of our traverse.

From there we traveled 400 km to meet the Swedish expedition team across a stretch that was mostly unexplored. After I joined the Swedish team, we traveled west to Kohnen Station, a European ice-core drilling project, then along a glacier that descends more than 1,000 meters from the inland plateau to the coast, so completing our 2,800km traverse. From Wasa Station we flew to Novolazalevskaya and back to Cape Town.

How cold was it during your expedition Antarctica is warm near the coast and cold inland. The temperature in summer was about minus 10 C near the coast and the coldest temperature during the traverse was about minus 40 C at Dome Fuji Station. When we dug a 4-meter-deep snow pit at Dome Fuji, the temperature in the pit was minus 60 C, as winter coldness still remained in the snow. Interestingly, I felt the temperature change most when we first arrived at Novorazalevskaya Station by plane. The temperature was minus 10 C, but the change from Cape Town (plus 30 C) was huge.

What is your specialty? I study glaciers and ice sheets. I have focused on relatively small glaciers in the Alps, so this was my first experience of working on a large ice sheet — what we call the very large glaciers of Antarctica and Greenland.

What was your own research purpose on this trip? My responsibility was to measure the density and electrical properties of snow, so each day I had to dig a 1-meter-deep pit. My measurements provided basic data for snow accumulation, climatic conditions, and satellite data analysis. I also collected snow samples for scientists interested in investigating chemicals and other impurities.

What were the findings of your group? It is difficult to tell exactly what we found because the results of our work serve as basic data for many other fields of Antarctic science, and also because most of the data and samples have yet to be analyzed. For example, we measured ice thickness from bedrock elevation using electromagnetic waves, which is very important data, but not particularly new information. However, our radio-echo data is now being studied in detail for new water channels and lakes that lie under the ice sheet.

What are the benefits of this trip? The data and samples collected during our trip will contribute to a better understanding of Antarctica, and can also be used to compare with data collected in the future. For example, we surveyed surface elevations along the route, and this data can be compared with future data to determine changes in ice-sheet volume.

What environmental issues are of concern in the region? Changes in ice volume in Antarctica are of great interest because these influence sea level, seawater salinity and temperature, ocean circulation, ocean and ice sheet ecosystems, and solar reflection off the Earth’s surface. It used to be thought that huge ice masses change volume slowly on a time scale between 1,000 to 10,000 years. However, recent observations show that the Antarctic ice sheet might be quickly losing mass.

Snow precipitation and calving (the separation of ice from glaciers into icebergs) are key to ice-sheet mass balance. Falling snow adds to the ice mass, while calving reduces it, and recently calving has been increasing. It is said that precipitation will increase in Antarctica in a warming climate, but this is not yet confirmed by observation. Also, scientists have recently found that glaciers and ice streams are increasingly dissipating ice into the ocean.

Another aspect of Antarctic science related to the environment is the reconstruction of paleo-climatic conditions from deep-ice cores. The Japanese team has retrieved 3,000-meter- deep ice cores at Dome Fuji and we are trying to reconstruct temperature and greenhouse-gas concentrations over the past 800,000 years. This study is important to investigate the cause of the present climate change and its future.

What did you eat? The Japanese team ate meals prepared by cooks at Showa. They were easy to prepare and delicious (Showa has two professional cooks and excellent food for wintering). We also used commercially available frozen or freeze-dried foods, such as cooked rice, rice balls, sushi, instant noodles and soup — especially for lunchtime. The concern was to reduce the time and effort involved in cooking to save time for driving, science and the rest.

The Swedish team cooked from raw materials. This took more time, but cooking was fun rather than troublesome. It was relaxing to cook together, to help each other and to talk with people in the kitchen. Even for lunch, we stopped for at least two hours for cooking and eating. The meals were not as special those of the Japanese, but we had a warmer atmosphere at meal times.

How did you sleep? The Japanese vehicle is basically a huge box. There is a driving cab and the rest of the space is used for research, cooking, dining, storing equipment and sleeping. There were small beds, but we normally made space for futons on the floor. We stopped the engine during the night, but the engine was large enough to keep the floor warm until the next morning.

The Swedish vehicle pulled a sledge they called their “living module” — something like a camping trailer. It was equipped with a kitchen, dining table, beds and a small shower room. Each person had a bed, so we could sleep anytime we wanted. A heating system kept the living module at a comfortable temperature.

Did you notice any other differences between the two teams? Our team was a Japanese Antarctica Research Expedition (JARE) and these are sent out every year by the National Institute for Polar Research (NIPR). This meant that we had to consult with Syowa or NIPR in Tokyo when we wanted to change our plans. We had a lot of help from others, but we also had a lot of jobs to do for others (sampling, instrument maintenance, measurements, etc.). JARE has 50 years of experience, so I felt very secure, but sometimes life was not very comfortable and equipment was outdated.

In comparison, the Swedish team was more independent in their activities, probably because Sweden does not have a wintering team, and their activities are more individually planned rather than a national project. It was nice to decide everything as a team with them, though the Swedes had less logistical support than the Japanese.

Any thoughts looking back? Japan dispatched its first Antarctica expedition team 50 yeas ago, on the occasion of the 1st International Polar Year. I am impressed that Japan did that just 10 years after World War II. This traverse project was completed as a contribution to the 2nd IPY, and I am truly honored to have been a member of this project.

See Sugiyama’s photos of the expedition at wwwice.lowtem.hokudai.ac.jp/~sugishin Stephen Hesse can be contacted at stevehesse@hotmail.com

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