2019/20 Antarctic field season begins

Science and support teams from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) are gearing up for the start of the Antarctic summer field season. The first twin otter aircraft have arrived at Rothera Research Station, preparations are being made to reopen Halley Research Station, and the next construction phases of a major programme to modernise Rothera and the islands stations are set to begin.

Teams of researchers from BAS, UK and US universities will be deployed across the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) for an ambitious series of deep-field research projects focussed on past climate, future sea-level rise and the birth of the solar system.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge and BAS return to the Skytrain Ice Rise – a remote and hostile part of (WAIS) to assess whether the 600 m-thick ice sheet retreated during warm periods in the past. The project, known as WACSWAIN involves drilling and analysing ice cores to determine the climate of the last warm period, 120,000 years ago. At that time global climate was around 2-4 degrees warmer than today and sea levels were 6-9m higher than today.

In November a 60-person UK-US team will mount the first large-scale ‘on ice’ field season of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration – a research effort to predict with more certainty the implications of future sea-level rise from ice loss in this region. Deployed from five field camps across Thwaites Glacier, (which is the size of the UK), research teams will collect data using radar surveys and hot water drilling to determine how the glacier interacts with the bed beneath.

A team from Manchester University will use a giant ‘metal detector’ to hunt for meteorites that lie several feet beneath the surface. These could provide clues to the birth of the solar system.

The summer season will be busy with construction work at Rothera and King Edward (KEP) point research stations. November sees the second build phase of a new wharf at Rothera Research Station and the start of groundworks for a new operations building. More than 60 construction workers from BAS’ construction partner BAM Nuttall will be on site.

In January a 20-person construction team from BAM, arrives At KEP to build a new wharf in readiness for the operation of the RRS Sir David Attenborough.

In November, Halley Research Station on the Brunt Ice Shelf re-opens. The station continues to operate as a summer-only facility until the stability of the ice shelf can be assured. An engineering team will return to further develop the successful micro-turbine power system that has successfully enabled automated scientific instruments to capture data such as ozone concentration, space weather and upper atmosphere observations during the winter months (Feb-Oct) when the station is unoccupied.

Professor David Vaughan, BAS Director of Science, says,

“This season’s science programme is ambitious and hugely exciting. The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration is the largest field programme attempted in Antarctica. Our development and testing of automated data capture at Halley is proving successful. For the time being unpredictable ice conditions force us to operate the station during summer only. Even though no one has been there since February our automated instruments captured data despite the extreme temperatures, winter darkness and gusting winds.”

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