Nobody on Earth has ever seen what lies beneath the vast Antarctic ice sheet - the greatest unknown region of our planet after the deep oceans. Our current knowledge is based on remotely gathered information from geophysical surveys and informed guesswork!
What we do understand is that the land mass of East Antarctic forms a very old "shield" similar to that of central Australia, southern Africa and India.
Indeed, it was geographically connected to these other continents prior to some 60M years ago when Antarctica formed a central piece of the former super-continent called Gondwana.
Mapping through the ice sheet using radar has revealed a landscape of major mountain belts, smaller massifs and extensive basins - very much like other continents. But we can only speculate on the age, origin and history of this area that is critical for understanding the evolution of our planet.
This is the fifth of six articles by Professor Drewry. Click here for the last installment.
We will carry out a Polar climate research project en route to the Pole.
The Beardmore Glacier is a major outlet glacier of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. Its flow and dynamics reflect the integrated effect of accumulation of snow in its drainage basin (there may be a limited amount of ablation mainly by blowing snow). Most of the ice is discharged into the Ross Ice Shelf. There is however some loss by evaporation/sublimation and blowing snow on the Beardmore itself due to the strong katabatic winds. Some of this is revealed by areas of blue ice.
By examining the blue ice zones it is likely to be possible to determine something of the ice dynamics.
These are areas, if they have been maintained for a sufficient period because of ice loss at the surface, where the flowlines from the interior are angled upwards and intersect the surface.
The further away (inland) the origin the more vigorous and long-lived will have been the ablation or ice loss at the surface of the glacier. This is valuable information in evaluating the overall behaviour of the outlet and assists in understanding better its response to possible climate changes.
To test the idea of the origin of the ice in the outlet we will need to take a number of relatively small samples of uncontaminated ice from the blue ice zones (about 20ml).
To undertake this, we will need to extract ice chips from about 20-30cm below the ice surface (using a clean ice axe). The samples must be kept frozen, or melted only once as refreezing will reset the isotopes.
The samples will be returned to the UK where the melt water can be used to determine the isotopic composition by a specialised laboratory. The two key isotopes are 18O and Deuterium. The lower the isotopic signature the colder the snow when it was precipitated to form the ice and hence higher (ie. colder) in the drainage basin.
Such a study will be contingent on travelling across some blue ice areas on the Beardmore - but it is some of the best terrain for travel (ie. few or visible crevasses).
Some ideas gained early on from aerial photos and satellite images and discussions with people like Charles Swithinbank, will enable us to identify these zones for travel and sampling. We hope to gain some samples of snow from areas on the Ross Ice Shelf and on the route to the Pole from the Beardmore (say every 100km) in order to evaluate the spatial variation and add to our existing understanding of the regional isotopic signatures.
This study requires limited equipment and not too many samples and of low weight and bulk which can be easily airlifted back. The location and importantly the height of the samples can be determined by GPS.
Antarctica is the coldest, driest and least populated region in the world; a continent slightly larger than Europe. It remains one of the least well-understood places on Earth. Last year, a billion-ton glacier about the size of Texas melted into the sea. If our planet is heading for trouble, Antarctica will tell us first.
Conditions on the ice are harsh. Even in the Antarctic summer, the average temperature is around -60 C, while winds regularly reach 120 miles per hour.
Antarctica has been the testing ground for many explorers. Survival is difficult, and teamwork is a necessity. In an environment such as this, every decision can be a matter of life and death.
We fly in from Punto Arenas, Chile. Having refuelled at Patriot Hills base, we will be dropped on Ross Island, at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. As befits a modern expedition, our trip will be entirely carbon-neutral, with all CO2 emissions offset.
The team will first climb Mount Erebus, the world's most southerly volcano. We then intend to depart from the Shackleton Hut at Cape Royds on October 29th 2008 at 10am, exactly a hundred years to the day since Shackleton and his men set out. Travelling unguided on skis, we will cross the Ross Ice Shelf, individually hauling our expedition supplies in sledges.We then ascend the seldom-crossed Beardmore Glacier, en route collecting blue ice samples for scientific analysis back in the UK. Then it's on to the Polar plateau, 400 miles towards the Pole itself.
We will keep the outside world notified of our daily progress wherever we find ourselves, via video and journal entries to be posted online.
It will be a long, hard march from here to the 97-mile point, which we intend to reach exactly on the centenary of the original team's achievement.
Instead of turning back, as they were then forced to, we will reach the South Pole, and thereby complete unfinished business. The total distance we expect to cover is 900 miles.
The aim is to arrive at 88 °23' South, Longitude 162 on January 9th, 2009. The picture above shows Marshall, Adams & Wild at this exact point in 1909, in a picture taken by Shackleton. Like them, we will be man-hauling 300lb sledges containing all our necessary supplies.
Our estimated journey time, weather permitting, is eighty days.
The ice that flows from deep within the interior of the ice sheet of Antarctica towards the outlet glacier such as the Beardmore Glacier, are likely to erode the land surface, pick up rocks and carry them within the ice.
Towards the Transantarctic Mountains this ice conveyer belt begins to move any debris upwards as the ice surface is persistently removed by wind and also forced higher by the constrictions of the rising land.
In a few places the rocks and debris are brought to the surface of the ice sheet where they form moraines and patches of sediment.
By sampling these moraines and the small particles held in the ice in the "blue" ice areas it is possible to later analyse them for their mineralogy.
This in turn enables some constraints at worst and new insights at best on the geological composition of the sub-glacial terrain - the blue ice zones on the Beardmore Glaciers may thus prove to be unique windows on that hidden sub-glacial world.
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