Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Antarctic treaty turns 50

Last year, this video was made to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty in "the interests of science and the progress of all mankind."


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Exploring Vostok and Ellsworth, the great lakes of Antarctica

Researchers from the UK, Russia, and the US are drilling deep holes in Antarctica in hopes of exploring lakes that have contained -- up until today -- the purest water on the earth.

The big question is whether the researchers will destroy what they have gone so far to discover: the untouched sanctity of the freshwater. It's a real concern, according the Washington Post:
The issue of contamination is already a heated one. The Lake Vostok drilling initially used kerosene and Freon, and scientists from around the world voiced concern that these chemicals would contaminate the untouched subglacial lake at contact. The Russians said they have since devised techniques to protect against polluting the lake, and they have submitted them to an international body that sets guidelines for Antarctic and glacial drilling. Those new plans will limit what the Russians initially collect from Vostok and will keep them from going deeper into the lake for some years, but their representatives said they embraced them anyway.
The Post article describes three major explorations of these mysterious lakes:
The first group scheduled to break through is the Russian team at Lake Vostok, the largest body of freshwater on the continent and the fourth largest lake, in terms of volume, on the planet. The Russians began drilling their Vostok ice core in 1957 but didn't know there was a massive lake below until 1995. They have drilled down almost three miles and are now within 300 feet of the water, and they hope to break through early next year.

Because of its enormous size and its location at the center of the continent, Vostok is generally considered the jewel in the crown for Antarctic study. Scientists have found microbes living (or, some say, just present) in most sections of the ice core pulled up so far, and they expect more are living in the darkness of the lake water and, most important, in the sediment below the mile-deep lake.

One tantalizing theory says that microbes at the bottom of the lake may be descendants of organisms that lived there 25 million to 30 million years ago, before Antarctica broke off entirely from the other continents and its forested environment turned into an icy one. If true, scientists will have found extreme forms of life cut off from the sun and the planet's surface for eons, which is precisely what they're looking for on frigid planets and moons. “We are expecting surprises,” said Valery Lukin of the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute.
Imagine what might be down there.
The British program focuses on Lake Ellsworth, situated near the wide start of the Antarctic Peninsula. That team will also be drilling through several miles of ice in search of microbial and other life forms in water that hasn't seen light for millions of years.

The U.S. effort, located in West Antarctica, will study a subglacial ecosystem that includes rivers, lakes and the area where the land ends and the ocean beneath the Ross Ice Shelf begins.
Photo credits:  Uni-Bremen/Studinger and ipy.org, monster by Stephane Lahaye.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Rare video of Antarctic krill swimming


In the Southern Ocean, one species, the Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, makes up an estimated biomass of over 500 million tonnes, roughly twice that of humans. Of this, over half is eaten by whales, seals, penguins, squid and fish each year, and is replaced by growth and reproduction. Most krill species display large daily vertical migrations, thus providing food for predators near the surface at night and in deeper waters during the day.
 Because krill oil is said to be a good source of the omega 3 oils DHA and EPA, there is an emerging market for krill oil as a dietary supplement ingredient. Which might or might not be a good thing, as the use of fish for omega 3 supplements has led to overfishing.


Friday, March 19, 2010

Documentary: Werner Herzog's Antarctica

In ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, Werner Herzog ("Grizzly Man," "Rescue Dawn") travels to the Antarctic community of McMurdo Station, the hub of the US Antarctic Program and home to eleven hundred people during the austral spring and summer (Oct-Feb).

"Over the course of his journey, Herzog examines human nature and Mother nature, juxtaposing breathtaking locations with the profound, surreal, and sometimes absurd experiences of the marine biologists, physicists, plumbers, and truck drivers who choose to form a society as far away from society as one can get."

Here's the film:


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How humpback whales hunt Antarctic krill

The whales have an amazing strategy.


Video of shrimp creature discovered under thick ice

NASA/AP reports:

This video frame grab image provided by NASA, taken in Dec. 2009, shows a Lyssianasid amphipod, which is related to a shrimp, where a NASA team lowered a video camera to get the first long look at the underbelly of an ice sheet and a curious shrimp-like creature came swimming by and then even parked itself on the cable attached to the camera. In a surprising discovery that shakes the idea of where higher life can thrive, scientists for the first time found a shrimp-like creature and a jellyfish frolicking beneath a massive Antarctic ice sheet.


Dangers of Antarctic travel

Ocean travel -- particularly into largely uncharted Antarctic waters -- is not without risk.  Violent storms and rogue waves can send even the largest ship to the bottom of the ocean.

Moreover, a sudden gust of strong wind can endanger the zodiac passenger, as some tourists recently discovered:

During this excursion, some gravity-driven—“katabatic”—winds arrived. We had never heard of these winds before the trip. They arise when cold air over an ice sheet flows downhill; accelerating in the process, before arriving suddenly with great force at the bottom, in our case, the bay. In minutes, the sea was full of 1-2 meter waves, and strong winds. Our bird guide, Steven, suggested to our Russian boatman that we return to the ship.

We tried.. . . .
This traveler's scary story highlights the importance of packing warmth-retaining apparel -- not to mention carrying a waterproof sack for your camera.  

As for surviving the voyage itself, it's a good idea to research on an expedition company before you sign up.


Meet C-28, Antarctica's big new iceberg baby

NPR reports;
A massive iceberg struck Antarctica, dislodging another giant block of ice from a glacier, Australian and French scientists said Friday.

The two icebergs are drifting together about 62 to 93 miles (100 to 150 kilometers) off eastern Antarctica following the collision on Feb. 12 or 13, said Australian Antarctic Division glaciologist Neal Young.
 The newly formed iceberg has been named Iceberg C-28, because it is the 28th substantial iceberg to have broken off the Antarctic ice shelf, in the quadrant that faces Australia, since 1976. The iceberg is 400 metres (1,300 ft) high, has a surface area of 2,545 square kilometres (983 sq mi) and weighs in at about 860 billion tonnes. According to Australian glaciologist Neal Young, such an event occurs once in 50 to 100 years.
Here's a picture of the aftermath of the collision (NASA) :

 Here's a nice Australian picture of the small iceberg in the bay between the two large icebergs -- visible in the above photo.  Spacefellowship explains, "Measuring roughly 8.5 by 9.5 kilometers (5 by 6 miles), this iceberg is surrounded by smaller chunks of ice, which may have broken off the Mertz Glacier Tongue at the same time as the large iceberg, or after it calved."

The coolest images of the iceberg come to us from the European Space Agency (ESA) website.  Check out this time lapse photo:
 This animation, made up of eight Envisat radar images, shows the 97-km long B-9B iceberg (right) ramming into the Mertz Glacier Tongue in Eastern Antarctica in early February 2010. The collision caused a chunk of the glacier’s tongue to snap off, giving birth to another iceberg nearly as large as B-9B. The new iceberg, named C-28, is roughly 78-km long and 39-km wide, with a surface area of 2500 sq km (the size of Luxembourg).

Envisat’s Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) acquired these images from 10 February to 4 March in Wide Swath Mode, providing spatial resolution of 150 m. ASAR can pierce through clouds and local darkness and is capable of differentiating between different types of ice.


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