Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Heigh Ho It's Off To Work We Go!

Wow. Less than a month until departure!
Natalie Robinson working hard picking some algae.

These past few weeks have been so crazy... and they've gone by so fast! First we welcomed the new freshman class of BURECS (woooo!).  Then they put up a program poster on Warren Towers (featuring my lovely co-ambassadors and me). Then the three of us were interviewed on BU radio! It's great to see the program getting such recognition and promotion. Communication is of course the C in BURECS so its exciting to see us really reaching out and sharing our research with the community.

As for me, I just finished my final for the a marine estuaries class  in  the Boston University Marine Program. It was a lot of fun, and a lot of work. Although it was a great experience, I'm glad its over-  now I have time to really focus on preparing for the expedition - and get some lab time in!

Every morning Natalie and I trek over to the lab at 9:00 AM where Drew Christ, the graduate student leading our trip, meets us an assigns us tasks to prepare for the expedition.  It's neat to see how everything comes together. So far we've read A LOT of papers about what we will be researching, started organizing equipment for the trip, and analyzing some sediment samples.  The basic glacial morphology that we learned last semester combined with new things that we've learned about like cosmogenic nuclides and radiocarbon dating. By finding and dating glacial features like moraines (sediment deposits at the edge of glaciers) we can see how the West Antarctic Ice Sheet changed over time!
This is, of course, the overall goal of our research. By understanding how ice sheets have responded to climate change in the past, we can better predict how they might respond in the future. But why do we need to know this?  

Well.... Antarctica is made up of two ice sheets - continental sized glaciers containing vast amounts of frozen water. There's the East Antarctica Ice Sheet (EAIS) and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). As the global climate warms, these ice sheets could melt and release large amounts of water, raising sea level.
We want to know how quickly and by how much this could happen.  The EAIS is a very stable ice sheet. It's grounded above sea level  and doesn't have much contact with water. The WAIS, however, is grounded below sea level and is always in contact with the ocean. Slightly warmer ocean water can accelerate melting and so  the WAIS is more unstable and sensitive to climate change.  If the WAIS melts sea level would rise about TWENTY FEET! That could be a huge problem for all of us living on the coast.

In order to better predict modern and future climate change, we have to look to the past to understand how these dynamic ice sheets work. We use geologic records like moraines to study West Antarctica in the past. At  the end of the last Ice Age, the ice sheets in Antarctica were much larger than they are today. As the climate warmed naturally the WAIS melted and retreated. But when?  Did it contribute to periods of rapid sea level rise in the past? Our lab uses techniques like radiocarbon dating of algae and cosmogenic nuclide dating to determine when the ice sheet retreated. We then compare this information with dated periods of rapid sea level rise elsewhere on the globe. If they match up then... uh oh.  The current retreat of the WAIS could cause a rapid sea level rise and us Bostonians had better watch out!

Sooooo that is basically what we do and why its important that we do it. Personally, it's nice to know that all of these hours of algae picking are for a good cause - the best even, for Earth is a precious place. As both a lifelong environmentalist and a student of research science, it's amazing to know that the work I am doing through BURECS, from the nitty gritty research, to the public outreach, to this amazing journey I'm about to embark on, it all has a higher purpose. To learn about - and learn how to save - the Earth!

Your Antarctic Ambassador, 
-Emelia Chamberlain 

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