Origin and Climatic Significance of Rock Glaciers in the McMurdo Dry Valleys: Assessing Spatial and Temporal Variability
Paragraph for Laypersons:
This research focuses on the history of rock glaciers and buried glacial ice in the McMurdo Dry Valleys region of Antarctica. Rock glaciers are flowing mixtures of ice and sediments common throughout alpine and high-latitude regions on Earth and Mars. Despite similar appearances, rock glaciers can form under highly variable environmental and hydrological conditions. The main research questions addressed here are: 1) what environmental and climatological conditions foster long-term preservation of rock glaciers in Antarctica, 2) what role do rock glaciers play in Antarctic landscape evolution and the local water cycle, and 3) what can rock glaciers reveal about the extent and timing of previous glacial advances? The project will involve two Antarctic field seasons to image the interior of Antarctic rock glaciers using ground-penetrating radar, to gather ice cores for chemical analyses, and to gather surface sediments for dating. The Dry Valleys host the world?s southernmost terrestrial ecosystem (soil, stream and lake micro-organisms and mosses); rock glaciers and ground-ice are an important and poorly-studied source of meltwater and nutrients for these ecosystems. This research will shed light on the glacial and hydrological history of the Dry Valleys region and the general environmental conditions the foster rock glaciers, features that generally occur in warmer and/or wetter locations. The research will provide support for five graduate/undergraduate students, who will actively gather data in the field, followed by interpretation, dissemination and presentation of the data. Additionally, the researchers will participate in a range of educational activities including outreach with local K-12 in the Lowell, MA region, such as summer workshops and classroom visits with hands-on activities. A series of time-lapse images of hydrological processes, and videos of researchers in the field, will serve as a dramatic centerpiece in community and school presentations.
Paragraph for Scientific Community:
Rock glaciers are common in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, but are concentrated in a few isolated regions: western Taylor Valley, western Wright Valley, Pearse Valley and Bull Pass. The investigators hypothesize that the origin and age of these features varies by region: that rock glaciers in Pearse and Taylor valley originated as buried glacier ice, whereas rock glaciers in Wright Valley formed through permafrost processes, such as mobilization of ice-rich talus. To address these hypotheses, the project will: 1) develop relative and absolute chronologies for the rock glaciers through field mapping and optically stimulated luminescence dating of overlying sediments, 2) assess the origin of clean-ice cores through stable isotopic analyses, and 3) determine if present-day soil-moisture and temperature conditions are conducive to rock glacier formation/preservation. The proposed research will provide insight into the spatial and temporal distribution of buried glacier ice and melt-water-derived ground ice in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, with implications for glacial history, as well as the potential role of rock glaciers in the regional hydrologic cycle (and the role of ground-ice as a source for moisture and nutrient for local ecosystems). The project will provide general constraints on the climatic and hydrologic conditions that foster permafrost rock glaciers, features that generally occur under warmer and wetter conditions than those found in the present-day McMurdo Dry Valleys. The application of OSL and cosmogenic exposure
dating is novel to rock glaciers, geomorphic features that have proven difficult to date, despite their ubiquity in Antarctica and their potential scientific importance. The research will provide support for five graduate/undergraduate students, who will participate in the field work, followed by interpretation, dissemination and presentation of the data. The researchers will participate in a range of educational activities including outreach with local K-12 in the Lowell, MA region, such as summer workshops and classroom visits with hands-on activities.
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