The bank for a changing world

A first crossing of East Antarctica

  • 06.11.2017

As part of its Climate Initiative program, the BNP Paribas Foundation is supporting the East Antarctic International Ice Sheet Traverse (EAIIST) project. Its goal? Collecting unprecedented data to model the evolution of East Antarctica, a region still largely unexplored, and its possible consequences on ocean level rise.

Why would scientists place seismographs in Antarctica?

One of the great imponderables of climate change will be Antarctica’s response to today’s warming over the decades ahead.

What we do know is that it is already losing mass along the coastal margins: the glaciers are fast approaching the sea, iceberg calving is well under way, and temperatures sometimes reach the fatal 0°C mark. However, some models predict that the warming of the oceans and atmosphere will increase evaporation, resulting in higher rainfall as far as Antarctica. Given the continent’s surface area, this could in fact offset the loss of coastal ice and thus drastically reduce the ice continent’s contribution to the rising sea level. 

This makes knowing whether Antarctica is gaining or losing ice a key concern for human kind, and the answer to this imponderable urgent. If we know that there is ice loss along the cost, what about the vast central regions of Antarctica? Can they offset these coastal losses and even put an end to rising sea levels in a few decades? To start piecing together the answers to these questions, a team of French, Italian, US and Australian researchers coordinated by Joël Savarino, a researcher from CNRS at the Institut de Géosciences de l’Environnement (CNRS/Université Grenoble Alpes/IRD/Grenoble INP), will traverse the South Pole on an unprecedented scientific expedition.

“ Thanks to French and Italian polar facilities, we can undertake this unprecedented journey across Antarctica to determine the continent’s ice gain or loss and decipher our ice-core climate records ”

Joël Savarino

Research director from CNRS at the Institut des Géosciences de l’Environnement (CNRS/Université Grenoble Alpes/IRD/Grenoble INP)

Caravans in Antarctica

With the help of tractor-pulled caravans, the team of 10 or so scientists, together with logistics experts and adoctor, will journey some 1,700 kilometres to the US Amundsen-Scott station from the Franco-Italian station Concordia between 2018 and 2019, and make the return journey the following year, between 2019 and 2020.

The traverse objectives are threefold: to determine snow accumulation in this particularly sparse part of the continent and the trend over the last few centuries; to learn more about the snow’s dynamic processes, especially the role of wind in surface morphology (formation of mega dunes, types of surface undulations invisible to the naked eye); and to better understand the recording mechanisms of environmental parameters in order interpret with greater accuracy the deep ice core samples taken from the continent interior. The team will also use the return crossing over two seasons to set up automatic weather stations and seismographs on the outgoing journey which they can recover or repair on the way back.

Vehicles of the scientific raid after a 6-days snow storm at the sub-station of Cap Prud'homme, Dumont d'Urville (East Antarctica) © Vincent Favier - Credits: © Guillemette Ménot (CEREGE, CNRS / Aix-Marseille Université / IRD / Collège de France)

Deciphering the past... to predict the future

Throughout the expedition, the first of its kind, the researchers will conduct geophysical analyses using surface radars to determine snow accumulation along the way. The physical and optical properties of snow, like density, albedo and grain size, will also be measured. Geochemical measurements are also taken of the interactions between air and ice in the ice core samples taken on the way. 

Savarino explains: “one thing that makes these largely unexplored regions so interesting is the environmental conditions that reflect the conditions that may have prevailed during the ice ages of the Pleistocene. It’s thought that the rains in the EPICA and Vostok major drilling areas are the same as backthen. In other words, the processes we will observe at the surface will probably be those that were at work during the ice ages. This will give us greater insight into the archiving process of climate signals, and allow us to interpret our ice age climate archives with greater accuracy”. 

Lastly, by collecting precise data from the continent’s interior and factoring in the variability of locations and the way in which local parameters influence data collected on site, the project aims to improve the extraction of climate information from existing ice cores and contribute to the answers to questions about Antarctica’s influence on rising sea levels over the next few decades.

one thing that makes these largely unexplored regions so interesting is the environmental conditions that reflect the conditions that may have prevailed during the ice ages of the Pleistocene.