How Thick Is the Convective Zone: A Study of Firn Air in the Megadunes Near Vostok, Antarctica
This award supports a study of the chemical composition of air in the snow layer (firn) in a region of "megadunes" near Vostok station, Antarctica. It will test the hypothesis that a deep "convective zone" of vigorous wind-driven mixing can prevent gas fractionation in the upper one-third of the polar firn layer. In the megadunes, ultralow snow accumulation rates lead to structural changes (large grains, pipes, and cracks) that make the permeability of firn to air movement orders of magnitude higher than normal. The unknown thickness of the convective zone has hampered the interpretation of ice core 15N/14N and 40Ar/36Ar ratios as indicators of past firn thickness, which is a key constraint on the climatically important variables of temperature, accumulation rate, and gas age-ice age difference. Studying this "extreme end-member" example will better define the role of the convective zone in gas reconstructions. This study will pump air from a profile of ~20 depths in the firn, to definitively test for the presence of a convective zone based on the fit of observed 15 N/14N and 40Ar/36Ar to a molecular- and eddy-diffusion model. Permeability measurements on the core and 2-D air flow modeling (in collaboration with M. Albert) will permit a more physically realistic interpretation of the isotope data and will relate mixing vigor to air velocities. A new proxy indicator of convective zone thickness will be tested on firn and ice core bubble air, based on the principle that isotopes of slow-diffusing heavy noble gases (Kr, Xe) should be more affected by convection than isotopes of fast-diffusing N2 . These tools will be applied to a test of the hypothesis that the megadunes and a deep convective zone existed at the Vostok site during glacial periods, which would explain the anomalously low 15N/14N and 40Ar/36Ar in the Vostok ice core glacial periods. The broader impacts of this work include 1) clarification of phase relationships of greenhouse gases and temperature in ice core records, with implications for understanding of past and future climates, 2) education of one graduate student, and 3) building of collaborative relationships with five investigators.
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