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ICESat-2 satellite tracks how polar ice is lost

Antarctica
This color-coded map shows the amount of ice gained or lost by Antarctica between 2003 and 2019. Dark reds and purples show large average rates of ice loss near the Antarctic coast, while blues show smaller rates of ice gain in the interior. (Smith et al. / Science / AAAS via UW)

A satellite mission that bounces laser light off the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland has found that hundreds of billions of tons’ worth of ice are being lost every year due to Earth’s changing climate.

Scientists involved in NASA’s ICESat-2 project report in the journal Science that the net loss of ice from those regions has been responsible for 0.55 inches of sea level rise since 2003. That’s slightly less than a third of the total amount of sea level rise observed in the world’s oceans over that time.

To track how the ice sheets are changing, the ICESat-2 team compared the satellite’s laser scans with similar measurements that were taken by the original ICESat spacecraft from 2003 to 2009. (ICESat stands for “Ice, Cloud and Elevation Satellite.”)

“If you watch a glacier or ice sheet for a month, or a year, you’re not going to learn much about what the climate is doing to it,” Ben Smith, a glaciologist at the University of Washington and lead author of the Science paper, said in a NASA news release. “We now have a 16-year span between ICESat and ICESat-2 and can be much more confident that the changes we’re seeing in the ice have to do with the long-term changes in the climate.”

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‘Antarctic King’ reigned before the dinosaurs

Triassic creatures
Along the banks of a river, three archosaur inhabitants of an Early Triassic forest in Antarctica cross paths: Antarctanax shackletoni sneaks up on an early titanopteran insect, Prolacerta lazes on a log, and an enigmatic large archosaur stalks two unsuspecting dicynodonts known as Lystrosaurus maccaigi. (© Adrienne Stroup, Field Museum)

Tyrannosaurus rex may have reigned as “king of the tyrant lizards” 65 million years ago, but 185 million years before that, a reptile about the size of an iguana was the king of Antarctica.

At least that’s the message contained in the name of a fossil that’s described in a newly published research paper — and is now part of the permanent collection at Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

The fossil was collected during an expedition to the frozen continent led by Christian Sidor, who is the museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology as well as a biology professor at the University of Washington. Sidor and two colleagues, the University of the Witwatersrand’s Roger Smith and Brandon Peecook of Chicago’s Field Museum, laid out the story behind the fossil in a paper published today by the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Antarctanax shackletoni takes its scientific name from the ancient Greek words for “Antarctic king” and from early-20th-century polar explorer Ernest Shackleton.

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Research robots survive a year under Antarctic ice

Seaglider deployment
Researchers deploy a Seaglider underwater drone from the South Korean icebreaker Araon in January 2018. (Paul G. Allen Philanthropies / UW APL / Columbia LDEO)

It’s been a year since a squadron of underwater robots was sent out to monitor the underside of Antarctica’s Dotson Ice Shelf, and researchers report that the whole squad has survived the harsh southern winter.

Except for one unfortunate battery-powered drone, that is.

“The one that hasn’t come back, it could be any number of things,” said Jason Gobat, a senior principal oceanographer at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory. Maybe something broke, or maybe it got stuck in the silt at the bottom of the sea.

The good news is that two other Seaglider drones are continuing to transmit data via satellite. Four free-floating EM-APEX probes have been heard from as well.

Craig Lee, another senior principal oceanographer at the UW lab, said getting useful scientific data from the robo-squadron amounts to mission success for the research project known as Ocean Robots Beneath Ice Shelves, or ORBIS.

The experiment, supported with nearly $2 million in funding from Seattle’s Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, has shown that the robots can use acoustic signals to navigate their way under the ice shelf, monitor the water that flows into and out of the ice shelf’s subsurface cavity, and keep operating for a whole year.

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Study shows Antarctic ice loss is accelerating

Antarctic ice loss contribution to sea level
This chart shows the contribution to global sea levels due to changes in the mass balance of the Antarctic ice sheet between 1992 and 2017. (IMBIE / Planetary Visions Graphic)

An analysis of satellite data collected since 1992 suggests that ocean-driven melting has led to a tripling in the rate of ice loss from West Antarctica, from 53 billion to 159 billion metric tons per year.

The study was conducted by a group of researchers as part of the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise, or IMBIE, and published today in the journal Nature.

Estimated annual ice loss from the Antarctic Peninsula rose from 7 billion to 33 billion metric tons over the same 25-year period, due to ice shelf collapse.

East Antarctica’s ice sheet, however, is gaining mass at an average rate of 5 billion metric tons per year. The main factor behind that gain appears to be fluctuations in snowfall, researchers said.

The analysis suggests that 3 trillion tons’ worth of Antarctic ice losses have increased global sea levels by 7.6 mm (0.3 inches) since 1992, and that the increase is accelerating.

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Fossil hunters unveil Antarctica’s Triassic treasures

Christian Sidor
Christian Sidor, Burke Museum curator of vertebrate paleontology and a biology professor at the University of Washington, recounts the discovery of Triassic fossils. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

More than 100 fossil specimens at Seattle’s Burke Museum provide a fresh window into how life thrived in Antarctica about 250 million years ago, thanks to global warming.

The slabs of rock document a time in the early Triassic Era when temperatures got so warm that Earth’s tropics were a virtual “dead zone.” The flip side of that climate equation is that Antarctica, which was still connected to what’s now Africa back then, was temperate enough to support weird sorts of amphibians and other forms of life.

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Antarctic drone duty gets a successful start

Seaglider at work
Pierre Dutrieux, an oceanographer from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, works on one of the three Seaglider underwater drones deployed in West Antarctica. (Paul G. Allen Philanthropies Photo)

A scientific team supported by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is reporting the successful deployment of a trio of undersea drones to monitor how climate change affects Antarctica’s ice sheets.

Now it’s up to the drones.

“We are so pleased with both the initial data collection and the unprecedented operational success of the mission thus far,” Spencer Reeder, director of climate and energy for Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, said in a news release. “It is hard to fathom that we have already witnessed multiple fully autonomous Seaglider forays of up to 140 kilometers round-trip under the ice shelf.”

The project is being conducted by researchers from the University of Washington and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, with almost $2 million in funding from Allen.

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Aging icebreaker Polar Star returns to Seattle

Polar Star arrives
Videographers document the return of the icebreaker Polar Star to Seattle. (USCG Photo)

The U.S. Coast Guard’s only active heavy-duty icebreaker, the 42-year-old Polar Star, returned to its homeport in Seattle today to cap off a challenging months-long mission to Antarctica.

The 13,000-ton cutter is built to break through ice as thick as 21 feet by backing and ramming, and can steam continuously through 6 feet of ice at a speed of 3 knots.

Every year, the Polar Star voyages to the waters off Antarctica to keep shipping lanes open to McMurdo Station, on the southern tip of Ross Island.

The ship left Seattle last November to take part in Operation Deep Freeze 2018, and faced numerous challenges — including two flooding incidents and the loss of one of the ship’s three main gas turbines. No injuries resulted, but the Coast Guard acknowledged that the problems took a toll on the crew and slowed the cutter’s progress to McMurdo.

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Robots are readied to study Antarctic ice shelves

Antarctic robot research team
Members of the research team stand on the deck of the R/V Robertson with two Seaglider drones on the left, plus a drone and a float on the right. The team includes UW’s Jason Gobat, Craig Lee, Knut Christianson and James Girton, plus Spencer Reeder of Paul G. Allen Philanthropies. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Researchers from the University of Washington and Columbia University are getting ready for an unprecedented months-long campaign to study Antarctica’s ice shelves from the ocean below, with backing from billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen.

The results are expected to lead to a better understanding of how ice retreats, and how climate change could affect the loss of polar ice sheets and the resulting rise in sea levels.

It’s a high-risk mission — but in this case, robots, not humans, are taking the risk.

“All of these instruments could be lost underneath the ice shelf,” said Spencer Reeder, director of climate and energy for Paul G. Allen Philanthropies.

Reeder said that’s a big reason why Allen, one of Microsoft’s co-founders, is funding the expedition to the tune of just under $2 million. The risks are too high for the traditional funders of polar research, but Allen’s backing could help UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory prove that its devices can do the job.

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Buzz Aldrin’s OK after South Pole medical scare

Buzz Aldrin and Christina Korp
Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin flashes a thumbs-up during his evacuation from Antarctica to New Zealand. His manager, Christina Korp, is in the foreground, taking the selfie shot. (Christina Korp Photo via Twitter)

Buzz Aldrin’s South Pole adventure turned into a medical emergency when his health deteriorated, but his manager says the Apollo 11 moonwalker is safe today in a New Zealand hospital.

The 86-year-old’s health declined during a tour of Antarctica, an adventure travel firm called White Desert said in a statement today.

Aldrin was handed over to the National Science Foundation for a medical airlift. The first leg of the outward trip took Aldrin from NSF’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to McMurdo Station on Ross Island, aboard a ski-equipped LC-130 cargo plane from the New York Air National Guard. He was flown from McMurdo to Christchurch, New Zealand, aboard a Safair cargo plane, NSF said.

White Desert said Aldrin was taken to a Christchurch hospital, where he was found to have fluid in his lungs. The travel firm said he was “responding well to antibiotics and being kept overnight for observation.”

“His condition is stable, and his manager, who is currently with him, described him being in good spirits,” White Desert said.

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