Significant U.S. Science Discoveries From Antarctica
July 7, 2009
Numerous scientific discoveries of global significance have been made in Antarctica by scientists supported by the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), the national research effort on the southernmost continent. The National Science Foundation (NSF) administers the Antarctic Program and coordinates almost all U.S. science on the continent. For more information about the Antarctic Program, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=102869.
Recent USAP discoveries and landmarks in reverse chronological order.
On April 6, the National Academy of Sciences and NSF jointly host a celebration of the early research accomplishments of the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008. IPY fieldwork, a two-year deployment of scientists from more than 60 nations into the polar regions, officially concluded on March 1, 2009, but science results from IPY-funded research can be expected to be published for many months and even years to come. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=114688
Microbes Thrive Under Glacier--An unmapped reservoir of briny liquid chemically similar to sea water, but buried under an inland Antarctic glacier, appears to support unusual microbial life in a place where cold, darkness and lack of oxygen would previously have led scientists to believe nothing could survive. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=114488
Space Weather Observatories--An international scientific consortium has successfully developed a series of autonomous observatories in Antarctica that for the first time provide critical year-round "space weather" data from the Earth's harshest environment. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=114540
Carbon-Dioxide Levels and Ice-sheet Stability--A five-nation scientific team has published new evidence that even a slight rise in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, one of the gases that drives global warming, affects the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). The massive WAIS covers the continent on the Pacific side of the Transantarctic Mountains. Any substantial melting of the ice sheet would cause a rise in global sea levels. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=114385
Autosub Launched--A team of British and American scientists successfully deploys an autonomous robot submarine on six missions beneath an Antarctic ice shelf using sonar scanners to map the seabed and the underside of the ice as it juts out over the sea. The research is part of a larger, NSF-funded project to study the dynamic Pine Island Glacier and to understand how increasing ocean temperatures triggered by a warming climate may affect the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) and global sea-level rise. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=114381
Antarctic Treaty Events--The Maryland Science Center in Baltimore is the focal point of a range of public events April 4 and 5 that highlight federally funded Arctic and Antarctic research programs. The public events are being held in conjunction with a meeting on the international treaty governing international cooperation and scientific research in Antarctica. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=114340
Peninsula Warming--Scientists have long established that the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming spots on Earth. Now, new research using detailed satellite data indicates that the changing climate is affecting not just the penguins at the apex of the food chain, but simultaneously the microscopic life that is the base of the ecosystem. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=114377
Mountain Range Under the Ice--Flying twin-engine light aircraft the equivalent of several trips around the globe and establishing a network of seismic instruments across an area the size of Texas, a U.S.-led, international team of scientists verified the existence of a mountain range that is suspected to have caused the massive East Antarctic Ice Sheet to form and created a detailed picture of the rugged landscape buried under more than four kilometers (2.5 miles) of ice. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=114172
New Balloon Flight-tested--NSF and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) successfully launch and demonstrate a newly designed super pressure balloon prototype that will one day enable a new era of high-altitude scientific research. The super-pressure balloon is expected to ultimately carry large scientific experiments to the brink of space for 100 days or more. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=112956
Antarctic Fossils--NSF-funded scientists working in an ice-free region of Antarctica discover the last traces of tundra-in the form of fossilized plants and insects--on the interior of the southernmost continent before temperatures began a relentless drop millions of years ago. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=111913
Continental Connection--A lone granite boulder found against all odds high atop a glacier in Antarctica may provide additional key evidence to support a theory that parts of the southernmost continent once were connected to North America hundreds of millions of years ago. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=111911
Glacial Earthquakes--New research that integrates seismic recordings with Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements indicates that a 7,000-square-mile region of the Whillians Ice Stream in West Antarctica moves more than two feet twice every day in an earthquake-like pattern equivalent to a Magnitude 7 temblor. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=111647
New Antarctic Ice Core--NSF-funded researchers closed out the inaugural season on an unprecedented, multi-year effort to retrieve the most detailed record of greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere over the past 100,000 years. Working as part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide (WAIS Divide) Ice Core Project, the team recovered a 580-meter (1,900-foot) ice core--the first section of what is hoped to be a 3,465-meter (11,360-foot) column of ice detailing 100,000 years of Earth's climate history. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=111000
New South Pole Station Dedicated--The United States dedicated a new scientific station at the geographic South Pole--the third since 1957--officially ushering in a new support system for sophisticated large-scale experiments in disciplines ranging from astrophysics to environmental chemistry and seismology. The dedication of the new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station took place on Jan. 12. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=110961
Scientific Balloons Achieve Flight Record--NSF and NASA jointly achieve a new milestone in the almost 20-year history of scientific ballooning in Antarctica, by launching and operating three long-duration sub-orbital flights within a single Southern-Hemisphere summer. For the full story, see http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=110933
New Satellite Map of Antarctica--Three federal agencies and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) unveiled a uniquely detailed and scientifically accurate satellite mosaic map of Antarctica that is expected to become a standard geographic reference and will give both scientists and the general public an unmatched tool for studying the southernmost continent. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=110742
Lunar Habitat Tested--NSF and NASA used the Antarctic's frigid, harsh, isolated landscape to test a new architecture for astronaut housing on the moon. The agencies sent a prototype inflatable habitat to the southernmost continent to see how the habitat stands up to a year of use. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=110657
Climatologists Honored--Two NSF-funded scientists, a U.S. Antarctic Program glaciologist and a recipient of the National Medal of Science, received the Lowell Thomas Award from the New York-based Explorers Club in recognition of their work at the frontiers of climate research. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=110153
Glaciers Contribution to Sea Level Rise--Ice loss from glaciers and ice caps is expected to cause more global sea rise during this century than the massive Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, according to a University of Colorado at Boulder study. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=109759
Antarctic Icebergs: Unlikely Oases for Ocean Life--According to a paper published in Science magazine, scientists have discovered that these floating ice islands--some as large as a dozen miles across--have a major impact on the ecology of the ocean around them, serving as "hotspots" for ocean life, with thriving communities of seabirds above and a web of phytoplankton, krill and fish below. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=109653
Lakes Buried Under Antarctic Ice Sheet--NSF should work within the environmental framework of the international Antarctic Treaty system to develop a global scientific consensus on minimally disruptive ways to investigate one of the "last unexplored places on Earth"--a unique system of lakes, and the aquatic systems that may connect them, buried thousands of meters under the Antarctic ice sheet. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=109587
Completion of South Pole Telescope--Just days before nations around the world were set to begin a coordinated global research campaign called the International Polar Year, scientists at the South Pole aimed a massive new telescope at Jupiter and successfully collected the instrument's first test observations. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=108413
Juvenile Fossil Plesiosaur Found--Amid 70-mile-an-hour winds and freezing Antarctic conditions, an American-Argentine research team recovered the well-preserved fossil skeleton of a juvenile plesiosaur--a marine reptile that swam the waters of the Southern Ocean roughly 70 million years ago. The fossil remains represent one of the most-complete plesiosaur skeletons ever found. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=108195
Antarctic Snowfall Unchanged in 50 Years--The most precise record of Antarctic snowfall ever generated shows there has been no real increase in precipitation over the southernmost continent in the past half-century, even though most computer models assessing global climate change call for an increase in Antarctic precipitation as atmospheric temperatures rise. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=107920
South Pole Supply Missions-A four-year project to test the possibility of transporting scientific equipment and material by ground from a field station located on Antarctica's coastal edge to another deep in the continent's center ended in success. The NSF convoy returned to McMurdo Station on Jan. 14, after logging more than 2,056 miles (3,300-kilometers) during its round trip. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=105718
Penguin Microevolution--By comparing the genetic code retrieved from 6,000-year-old remains of Adelie penguins in Antarctica with that of modern Adelies living at the same site as their ancestors, an international team of researchers has shown that microevolution, the process of evolutionary change at or below the species level, has taken place in the population. They also speculate that the remarkable lack of genetic differentiation among Adelie populations from around Antarctica may have been prompted by changes in migration patterns caused by giant icebergs. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=104626&org=NSF&from=news
Martian Meteorite--NSF-funded researchers uncover a new Martian meteorite in Antarctica. A field party from the U.S. Antarctic Search for Meteorites program (ANSMET) found the new specimen on Dec. 15, 2003, on an icefield in the Miller Range of the Transantarctic Mountains, roughly 750 kilometers (466 miles) from the South Pole. This 715.2 gram (1.5 pound) black rock, officially designated MIL 03346, was one of 1358 meteorites collected by ANSMET during the 2003-2004 austral summer. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=100409
Lake Vostok--NSF-funded scientists develop the first-ever map of water depth in Lake Vostok, which lies between 3,700 and 4,300 meters (more than 2 miles) below the continental Antarctic ice sheet. The new comprehensive measurements of the lake--roughly the size of North America's Lake Ontario--indicate it is divided into two distinct basins that may have different water chemistry and other characteristics. The findings have important implications for the diversity of microbial life in Lake Vostok and provide a strategy for how scientists study the lake’s different ecosystems should international scientific consensus approve exploration of the pristine and ancient environment. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=100407
Undersea Volcano--Scientists working in the stormy and inhospitable waters off the Antarctic Peninsula find what they believe is an active and previously unknown volcano on the sea bottom. The international science team from the United States and Canada mapped and sampled the ocean floor and collected video and data that indicate a major volcano exists on the Antarctic continental shelf, they announced in a May 5 dispatch from the NSF's research vessel Laurence M. Gould. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=100385
Dinosaurs--Against incredible odds, researchers working in separate sites, thousands of miles apart in Antarctica find what they believe are the fossilized remains of two species of dinosaurs previously unknown to science. One of the two finds, which were made less than a week apart, is an early carnivore that would have lived many millions of years after the other, a plant-eating beast, roamed the Earth. http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=100340
Mars Analog--NSF-funded researcher David Marchant, of Boston University, co-authors a paper in the journal Nature arguing that studies of the unique landscape in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica provide new insights into the origin of similar features on Mars and provide one line of evidence that suggests the Red Planet has recently experienced an ice age. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/03/pr03149.htm
Climate--Steven D. Emslie, of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, publishes results of his NSF-funded research indicating that a previously unnoticed cooling trend that persisted for a millennium caused enough ice to build up in Antarctica's Ross Sea that thousands of Adelie penguins abandoned their colonies beginning about 2,000 years ago. His techniques, he says, can also help to refine our understanding of climatic change on the southernmost continent. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/03/pr03135.htm
2003 -- Data collected by a new seismic observatory at NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station indicate that it is the quietest listening post on the planet for observing shudders produced by earthquakes around the world as they vibrate through the Earth. The South Pole Remote Earth Science Observatory (SPRESO) is located eight kilometers (five miles) from the South Pole and the new seismometers were installed roughly 300 meters (1000 feet) beneath the surface of the continental East Antarctic ice sheet in specially drilled boreholes. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/03/pr0333.htm
2002 -- NSF-supported researchers drilling into Lake Vida, an Antarctic "ice-block" lake, find the lake isn't really an ice block at all. In the December issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team reveals that Lake Vida may represent a previously unknown ecosystem, a frigid, "ice-sealed," lake that contains the thickest non-glacial lake ice cover on Earth and water seven times saltier than seawater. Because of the arid, chilled environment in which it resides, scientists believe the lake may be an important template for the search for evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars and other icy worlds. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/02/pr02100.htm
-- Using a powerful new instrument at the South Pole, a team of cosmologists produces the most detailed images of the early Universe ever recorded. The information was assembled from measurements of the subtle temperature differences in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation. The CMB is the remnant radiation that escaped from the rapidly cooling Universe about 400,000 years after the Big Bang. The new results provided additional evidence to support the currently favored model of the universe in which 30 percent of all energy is a strange form of dark matter that doesn't interact with light and 65 percent is in an even stranger form of dark energy that appears to be causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate. Only the remaining five percent of the energy in the Universe takes the form of familiar matter like that which makes up planets and stars. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/02/pr0299.htm
-- The movements of two gigantic Antarctic icebergs appear to have dramatically reduced the number of Emperor penguins living and breeding in a colony at Cape Crozier, according to two NSF-funded researchers who visited the site. The colony is one of the first ever visited by human beings early in the 20th century. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/02/pr0291.htm
-- In a paper published in the journal Nature, Robin E. Bell, an NSF-funded researcher at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and her colleagues argue that the hydrodynamics of Lake Vostok, a subglacial lake deep in the Antarctic interior, may make it possible to search for evidence of life in the layers of ice that accumulate on the lake's eastern shore. Scientists say such a possibility would provide another avenue for exploring the lake's potential as a harbor of microscopic life, in addition to actually exploring the waters of the lake itself. Lake Vostok is thought to be one of the world's largest, 48 kilometers (30 miles) wide by 225 kilometers (140 miles) long and 914 meters (3,000 feet) deep. Its waters have been sealed from air and light for perhaps as long as 35 million years under the tremendous pressure of the continental ice sheet. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/02/pr0219.htm
-- Doug MacAyeal, an NSF-funded researcher at the University of Chicago, lands on iceberg B-15A, perhaps for the final time, to update weather station information that will allow scientists to track the gyrations of the berg and its microclimate. MacAyeal notes that collisions between the berg and a smaller, but still sizeable berg, dubbed C-16, will probably cause B-15A to break up. Data previously collected on the icebergs' movements have helped scientists to understand what propels icebergs as they move along the ice shelf and eventually out to sea. For the full story, see: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/02/pr0212.htm
2001 -- An eight-member team at NSF's McMurdo Station equipped Weddell seals with cameras and data recorders, providing a rare glimpse into the habits of two very important Southern Ocean species, the Antarctic silverfish and the Antarctic toothfish, which is prized by commercial fishing fleets. Their methods could have wider applications for studying other species that thrive at great depths. For the full news release, see http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/02/pr0204.htm
-- Peter Doran of the University of Illinois at Chicago argues in a Nature paper on behalf of researchers with NSF's (NSF) Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) site in Antarctica's Dry Valleys that long-term data from weather stations across the continent, coupled with a separate set of measurements from the Dry Valleys, confirm that Antarctica overall has cooled measurably during the last 35 years. For the full news release, see http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/02/pr0203.htm
-- NSF-funded scientist David Ainley finds that enormous grounded icebergs and an unprecedented amount of sea ice in Antarctica's Ross Sea combined to nearly isolate one of the continent's most populous Adelie penguin colonies. At the same time, NSF-funded researcher Gerald Kooyman discovers that the icebergs' presence also caused a small colony of Emperor penguins to fail to reproduce. For the full news release, see http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/press/01/pr01108.htm
-- A team of authors, including John Priscu, an NSF-funded researcher at Montana State University, argue in a paper published in Nature that liquid lakes buried thousands of meters below the Antarctic ice sheet are likely the home to unique habitats and creatures that thrive in them. They also note that exploration of those lakes will require extreme care and international cooperative effort. For the full news release, see http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/press/01/pr0194.htm
-- Two teams of cosmologists release spectacular images of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), taken with instruments operating from Antarctica, that reveal the strongest evidence to date for the theory of inflation, the leading model for the formation of the universe. For the full news release, see http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/press/01/pr0138.htm
-- NSF-funded researchers install monitors on one of the largest icebergs ever to break away from the Ross Ice Shelf, to track its microclimate and movements.
2000 -- Balloon-borne instruments provide first detailed images of the early universe.
-- Evidence is discovered of microbes that can survive the extremes of darkness, cold, and ultraviolet radiation at the South Pole.
-- Studies show that diverse marine mammals employ the same physiological mechanism to dive to great depths.
1999 -- Four new fish species are found in Antarctic waters, giving biologists new insights into the processes of evolution in ecological niches.
-- Research shows that microorganisms can survive in subglacial Lake Vostok, thousands of meters below the Antarctic ice cap.
1998 -- Measurements show that possible instabilities in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could increase its discharge, raising world sea level more rapidly than at present.
1996 -- A meteorite collected in Antarctica is confirmed to have come from Mars and offers possible evidence for ancient primitive Martian life.
1994 -- Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station provides images of the crash of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter.
1992 -- An estimated six to 12 percent reduction in Antarctic marine primary production is reported as a result of increases in ultra violet radiation from the Antarctic "ozone hole."
1991 -- Fossil of 25-ft-long dinosaur discovered 350 miles from the South Pole proves dinosaurs were on every continent.
1988 -- Sea-floor drilling shows that a much larger Antarctic ice sheet existed 35 million years ago.
1986 -- Research at McMurdo Station, the main U.S. scientific station in Antarctica, establishes chlorofluorocarbons as the probable cause of the Antarctic ozone hole.
1984 -- At the South Pole, a sensitive ground-based detector records the largest solar cosmic ray event since 1956.
1982 -- A fossil mammal discovered on Seymour Island proves Antarctica and South America were connected as recently as 40 million years ago.
Science at the South Pole.
For information on the University of Chicago's Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica, see: http://astro.uchicago.edu/cara/
For information on the University of Wisconsin's Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector (AMANDA), see: http://alizarin.physics.wisc.edu/
The Search for Antarctic Meteorites.
Peter West, NSF, (703) 292-8070, firstname.lastname@example.org
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