TAMPA — Their research is taking place in another hemisphere in a climate that couldn’t be more different from a balmy Florida spring, but a team from the University of South Florida is focusing on an issue that could someday wash up on our shores.
Two professors and three graduate students from USF are aboard the research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer off the coast of eastern Antarctica, collecting oceanographic and geologic data. Their focus is the Totten glacial system, which appears to be thinning in response to intruding warm ocean waters.
Changes to the Antarctic ice sheet can disrupt climate and weather patterns and raise global sea levels — a daunting prospect in a state with 2 million homes already in potential flood zones.
“All Floridians should be concerned about ice sheet melt, because that translates directly to sea level rise,” said Amelia Shevenell, a professor of geological oceanography at USF and a one of the principal investigators on the trip. “All of Florida will be affected by sea level rise. If the West Antarctic ice sheet melted, Florida would be completely under water. This isn’t really a matter of if, but a matter of when.”
Little is understood about the rate of melt and whether the system responds in a linear fashion or if there is a tipping point after which the ice sheet collapse would accelerate, Shevenell said.
The USF researchers aim to help solve some of that mystery. They boarded the icebreaker in Hobart, Tasmania, on Jan. 29 after flights from Tampa to Los Angeles, Sydney, Australia, and Hobart. The ship is expected to return to Hobart on March 16.
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Joined by scientists from seven other universities around the world, the team is mapping the sea floor in the Totten area, collecting sediment cores from the continental shelf and dredging for sedimentary rocks nearby.
There have already been significant discoveries. The group has found the warmest water recorded in East Antarctica, found outcrops of rocks at the bottom of the ocean that provide clues about a warm Antarctica millions of years ago, and identified where and how much meltwater is escaping from the shrinking ice shelf.
“We have traveled to a location never studied before and accomplished tremendous and unexpected science on this cruise,” said Tasha Snow, a graduate student at USF originally from Ocean Shores, Wash. “From this story, other cruises will likely follow in order to continue breaching sea ice barriers into other unexplored sites.”
Work on the ship continues around the clock. Researchers are split into day and night shifts, routinely 12 hours each. The concept of day and night is a little different — with the ship hovering near the Antarctic Circle, there are just a few hours of darkness.
Then there is the issue of time itself. With the planet’s 24 time zones converging on the South Pole, the USF team relies on Hobart local time.
There are other quirks to researching at the bottom of the globe. During an email interview this week, Shevenell reported the temperature was -6.9 Celsius, or 19.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The wind chill was -15.2, or 4.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s in the summer season there.
“It’s nice and comfortable on the ship, but when I step outside and feel how cold it is, I am definitely humbled by the fact that I, as a human, am not evolved to survive in this environment,” said Michelle Guitard, a USF grad student from Burbank, Calif.
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The ship has limited Internet connectivity, an iffy satellite phone connection, and an email system that can handle only small files, which made interviews for this story possible.
“On the flip side, the isolation and extreme elements are what make this whole experience exciting,” said Guitard, who holds a bachelor’s degree in marine science from the University of Hawaii at Hilo. “It adds to the adventurous spirit of the cruise. The isolation also makes the continent more beautiful to me, because I know that this continent is one of those places that will never be settled and it will remain wild.”
Also on board from USF are Eugene Domack, a professor of geological oceanography who has made 25 trips to the continent, and grad student Katy Smith.
When there is down time on the ship, there are cornhole tournaments, movie nights, workouts and galley socializing. The crew blogs about its adventures at ameliashevenell.wordpress.com.
Most entertaining, though, has been the wildlife.
“It’s hard to believe that we are actually here in Antarctica, working with penguins and seals all around us; it feels like something out of National Geographic,” said Snow. She has spotted minke, humpback, orca and fins whales, including mother calves with babies; leopard, Weddell and crabeater seals; and emperor and Adelie penguins.
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Snow called the Adelie penguins “the comedians of Antarctica,” the way they appear curious about the ship and crew, clumsily waddling with their wings outstretched behind them and bellyflopping into a slide when they can. “Everyone loves taking pictures of the penguins and providing commentary for them as they mill about,” she said. “I think the entertainment value is mutual across the board for both human and penguin.”
Another natural show captivated Guitard: aurora australis, or the Southern Lights. “Truly amazing, I couldn’t believe I was seeing them,” she said. “They are one of those phenomena that you read about but can never really imagine.”
All of that takes a back seat to the research, however. Guitard said working in uncharted territory collecting data that has never been gathered provides incentive to do a good job.
“Sometimes it doesn’t hit me until I go to look for some data that doesn’t exist yet,” she said. “During one of my watch shifts, I was trying to figure out if we were heading into deeper waters. I looked at the instrument that maps the bathymetry and saw that we were doing our fist sweep of the area, so that data didn’t exist yet. That’s when it absolutely floored me.”
Snow said she is “enthralled” with research in Antarctica and wants to make every effort to return throughout her career.
“I believe this might be the same general feeling that most of the scientists on this cruise share,” she said. “The great frontier of Antarctica never fails to enrapture everyone who experiences it.”