State of the Planet

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Return to an Ice Shelf Lost

Bruce Huber with the Nathaniel B. Palmer
Bruce Huber with the Nathaniel B. Palmer

A team of scientists, technicians and helicopter pilots will sail from Punta Arenas, Chile, for Antarctica on Jan. 2. I’ll be part of that team, collecting data, and serving as co-chief scientist for the cruise. Our home for the next two months will be the ice-breaking research vessel Nathanial B. Palmer.

My journey starts with the long flight from New York to Chile on Dec. 28. By then, many of the scientists and crew will already be on board, some having missed Christmas at home to ready the ship for departure. We have only a few days to prepare the equipment and laboratories before sailing.

Our science project, called LARISSA, is designed to collect data over several years to help us understand how continental glaciers and sea ice are changing and to learn more about the oceans, climate and Antarctic marine life. Geologists, glaciologists, ecologists and physical oceanographers make up our team. My field is physical oceanography – the study of how the ocean moves, and how it interacts with the atmosphere and ice. We are headed for the Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula, a finger of land that points toward South America.

We will spend most of our time in an area that used to be covered by a thick slab of floating glacial ice called the Larsen B ice shelf. The abrupt disintegration of Larsen B in 2002 allows us to go in by ship now to study parts of the ocean and ocean bottom previously capped by ice for about 10,000 years. We made short visits to Larsen B in 2005 and 2006, collecting bits of tantalizing data. Now, with LARISSA, we have the chance to spend more time with the aid of helicopters, a remote underwater vehicle, and a range of experts.

Every scientific cruise has a leader: the chief scientist. Because our project is so complex, the leadership responsibilities will be shared between the chief scientist and co-chief scientist (me!). In addition to our data collection duties, the chief and co-chief will create the “plan of the day” –to make sure we use the ship and its resources most efficiently. We will also decide what to do if bad weather, heavy ice or malfunctioning equipment changes our plans. Fifty nine days at sea sounds like a long time, but we have a lot to accomplish, and need to plan every minute. We will work in shifts around the clock to make the most of this unique opportunity.

This will be my 18th trip to the oceans surrounding Antarctica–one of my favorite was a visit to this same area, in 1992. Until the late 90s, the sea ice in the western Weddell Sea was too thick for ice breakers to penetrate, so we knew very little about this region. British explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew became stuck here in 1915 and had to abandon their ship, the Endurance, to the ice that eventually crushed it. In 1992, a team of scientists camped on the ice and made oceanographic measurements as they drifted north, at times retracing Shackleton’s path. It will be exciting to return, and to add to this work from the comfort of a modern ice breaker.

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14 years ago

Hi- Hope everything is going well. I am starting to understand more of what you are doing out at sea. Yay!