Friday, December 10, 2010

Old Ice in Garwood Valley

I'm back from a week of tent camping in Garwood Valley--one of the southernmost Dry Valleys (more than 78 degrees South!). The mission was a great success. I'm starting a new project to study buried glaciers that flooded the valley more than 10,000 years ago. Unlike most glaciers from that era, which have long since melted, this ice is preserved under a thick sand cover.

Buried ice, to the right, in Garwood Valley. A 3 m tall weather station is next to the ice.

The ice is not stable, though. It formed under much colder conditions during the last glacial maximum and is now melting and sublimating away. It's particularly at risk of melting where the ice is exposed to the warm, dry summer atmosphere--so the "ice cliff" in the above photo is melting away like an ice cream cone on a hot afternoon. The melting of the buried ice, coupled with erosion by the Garwood river, means that this treasure trove of climate data from the recent past is quickly disintegrating.

A block of ice and sediment from the last glacial maximum that has tumbled from its perch into the Garwood river. Best not to be working on the cliff when one of these comes down.  

What we're trying to understand in Garwood is how thick was the ice in Antarctica 10,000 years ago and what was the climate like. This is important because Garwood is one of the few places in Antarctica that is currently undergoing rapid landscape change because of warm temperatures (relative to 10,000 years ago). It's like a crystal ball that we can use to look into the future of the Antarctic Dry Valleys to predict how the glaciers and permafrost soils will respond to a warmer world.

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