After landing on the iceberg, the international team installed weather instruments, a video camera, and snow sensors on the iceberg's surface. These tools collected data and sent it via satellite to researchers who studied how the iceberg changed as it drifted along its characteristic track northward, out of the Weddell Sea and into warmer climes.
Within two years, the iceberg drifted away from Antarctica and into the South Atlantic, where air and ocean temperatures were much warmer. The new climate induced rapid breakup, providing important information on the disintegration process.
Scientists recognize that the final stages of iceberg break-up resemble the rapid disintegration of ice shelves caused by climate warming. Floating shelves of ice on the Antarctic Peninsula are experiencing temperatures and melt rates that they can no longer withstand. Ice shelves are important because they help control glacier flow; removal of ice shelves causes rapid glacier acceleration and calving.
Ice shelf breakup is usually caused by surface pond melting and fracturing. Scientists believe that melting at the base of ice shelves also contributes to disintegration. However, they aren't sure how these processes interact. Waiting for a major ice shelf breakup could take decades—a long time to wait for important data.
However, examining the iceberg as it drifts into warmer climates is the perfect opportunity for scientists to study an “accelerated” breakup. They hope to resolve the importance of basal melting versus surface pond melting and fracturing in ice breakup.
See Research Updates to read about what the scientists learned through IceTrek. The Journal of Glaciology recently published a research paper describing IceTrek's results. To download the article, visit the Journal of Glaciology Web site.
By improving our grasp on the processes that lead an iceberg to break up, scientists hope to gain insight into ice shelf disintegration. This knowledge will help us understand the affects that melting ice shelves have on glacier acceleration and, hence, on sea-level rise. As global temperatures increase and cause accelerated melting in the Polar Regions, sea-level rise could affect thousands of coastal communities worldwide.
The IceTrek team includes glaciologists Pedro Skvarca (Instituto Antartico Argentino) and Ted Scambos (University of Colorado), who conducted traverse measurements of ice thickness and ice deformation across the iceberg during the team's stay. Automatic Weather Station specialist Jonathan Thom (University of Wisconsin), together with video, Iridium, and computer-system expert Ron Ross (Stanford University) worked on tool deployment. Expert mountaineer Rob Bauer (University of Colorado) watched over the team's safety, as well as performed radar profiling. Mechanical engineer Juan Carlos Quinteros helped with snowmobiles and other equipment.
The National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs provides funding for IceTrek. Dirección Nacional del Antártico Instituto Antártico Argentino provides logistical support and science guidance.