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Press Release - Antarctica’s hidden world – mission accomplished

Issue date: 24 Feb 2009
Number: 02/2009

Artists impression of the AGAP mission

The mission to uncover secrets of the enigmatic Gamburtsev subglacial mountains has been accomplished, with the first glimpse of a landscape buried under up to 4km (2.5 miles) of ice revealed.

The Antarctica’s Gamburstev Province (AGAP) project — one of the most ambitious, challenging and adventurous ‘deep field’ Antarctic missions of the International Polar Year — has captured the first clear picture of the mysterious mountain range discovered by Russian scientists 50 years ago. The Gamburtsev subglacial mountains are thought to be the birthplace of the vast East Antarctic Ice Sheet that covers 10 million km2 of our planet.

Working for weeks at high altitude the science teams set up two remote field camps — AGAP North and AGAP South on both sides of Dome A, the highest point on the ice sheet. In some of the harshest conditions imaginable with temperatures averaging at −30 Celsius, the seven-nation team flew two survey aircraft over the ice sheet. 120,000 km were flown, the equivalent of three trips around the globe. Over 20% (one fifth) of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet was explored with state of the art radar, aeromagnetic and gravity sensors.

Geophysicist Dr Fausto Ferraccioli of BAS led the UK science effort. He says:

“This is a fantastic finale to the International Polar Year. We now know that not only are the mountains the size of the European Alps but they also have similar peaks and valleys. And this adds even more mystery about how the vast East Antarctic Ice Sheet formed. If the ice sheet grew slowly then we would expect to see the mountains eroded into a plateau shape. But the presence of peaks and valleys could suggest that the ice sheet formed quickly — we just don’t know. Our big challenge now is to dive into the data to get a better understanding of what happened.”

Photo gallery of AGAP mission

AGAP US Co-leader Robin Bell, of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University said:

“The temperatures at our camps hovered around −30 Celsius, but three kilometres beneath us at the bottom of the ice sheet we saw liquid water in the valleys. The radar mounted on the wings of the aircraft transmitted energy through the thick ice and let us know that it was much warmer at the base of the ice sheet.”

In addition to studying the origin of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, the Gamburtsev mountains, and subglacial water buried under the ice sheet, the science team will also trace ancient ice layers using radar data. This will help determine the ideal location for future deep ice coring, which will provide novel insights into past, present and future climate change.

ENDS

Issued by British Antarctic Survey Press Office:

British Antarctic Survey media contact:
Linda Capper, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221 448; email: lmca@bas.ac.uk; mobile 07714 233744
Athena Dinar: Tel: +44 (0)1223 221414; email amdi@bas.ac.uk; mobile 07740 822229

USA National Science Foundation media contact:
Peter West, Tel: 001 703 292 7761; cell: 001 301 385 7140 email: pwest@nsf.gov

Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) in Hannover, Germany media contact:
Andreas Beuge, Tel: +49-(0)511 643 2679; Fax: +49-(0)511 643-3685; email: andreas.beuge@bgr.de

Australian Antarctic Division media contact:
Sally Chambers Tel: 61 3 6232 3405; email: Sally.Chambers@aad.gov.au

National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR) in Tokyo, Japan media contact:
Dr. Masaki Kanao, Tel; +81(3)3962 4712, kanao@nipr.ac.jp

Interview opportunities: the science and engineering teams depart around end of October. Please contact press offices to arrange pre-departure interviews.

Notes for editors:

Stunning broadcast-quality footage and stills of Antarctica as well as location maps are available from the BAS Press Office.

Fully in the spirit of IPY, the researchers, teams of scientists, engineers, pilots and support staff from Australia, UK, Canada, China, Germany, Japan and the U.S. pooled their knowledge, expertise and logistical resources to deploy two survey aircraft, equipped with ice-penetrating radar, gravimeters and magnetic sensors as well as the network of seismometers, an effort that no one nation alone could have mounted.

Science and technical teams were supported from US Amundsen-Scott Station at South Pole, McMurdo Research Station, from the Australian Davis Station and the BAS Rothera Research Station.

International partnerships at the heart of AGAP

  • UK — British Antarctic Survey
  • USA — National Science Foundation
  • USA — Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory
  • USA — University of Kansas
  • USA — US Geological Survey
  • USA — University of New Hampshire
  • USA — Elizabeth City State University
  • USA — Washington University in St Louis
  • USA — Penn State University
  • Germany — Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources
  • Germany — Alfred Wegener Institute
  • China — National Antarctic Research Expedition and Polar Research Institute China — PANDA
  • Australia — Australian Antarctic Division
  • Japan — National Institute of Polar Research

The Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is a world leader in research into global environmental issues. With an annual budget of around £45 million, five Antarctic Research Stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft, BAS undertakes an interdisciplinary research programme and plays an active and influential role in Antarctic affairs. BAS has joint research projects with over 40 UK universities and has more than 120 national and international collaborations. It is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council.

International Polar Year (IPY) 2007–2008 is the largest coordinated international scientific effort for 50 years. Featuring more than 200 Arctic and Antarctic projects, IPY involves 50,000 people — including scientists, students and support staff — from more than 60 nations. Together, they will set out to discover more about the Polar Regions and their critical influence on the rest of the planet.