Glacial-interglacial History of West Antarctic Nunataks and Site Reconnaissance for Subglacial Bedrock Sampling
This award supports a project to conduct a reconnaissance geological and radar-sounding study of promising sites in West Antarctica as a prelude to a future project to conduct subglacial cosmogenic nuclide measurements. Field work will take place in the Whitmore Mountains, close to the WAIS divide, and on the Nash and Pirrit Hills, downflow from the divide in the Weddell Sea drainage. At each site geological indicators of higher (and lower) ice levels in the past will be mapped and evidence of subglacial erosion or its absence will be documented. Elevation transects of both glacial erratics and adjacent bedrock samples will be collected to establish the timing of recent deglaciation at the sites and provide a complement to similar measurements on material from depth transects obtained by future subglacial drilling. At each site, bedrock ridges will be traced into the subsurface with closely-spaced ice-penetrating radar surveys, using a combination of instruments and frequencies to obtain meter-scale surface detail, using synthetic aperture techniques. Collectively the results will define prospective sites for subglacial sampling, and maximize the potential information to be obtained from such samples in future studies. The intellectual merit of this project is that measurements of cosmogenic nuclides in subglacial bedrock hold promise for resolving the questions of whether the West Antarctic ice sheet collapsed completely in the past, whether it is prone to repeated large deglaciations, and if so, what is their magnitude and frequency. Such studies will require careful choice of targets, to locate sites where bedrock geology is favorable, cosmogenic nuclide records are likely to have been protected from subglacial erosion, and the local ice-surface response is indicative of large-scale ice sheet behavior. The broader impacts of this work include helping to determine whether subglacial surfaces in West Antarctica were ever exposed to cosmic rays, which will provide unambiguous evidence for or against a smaller ice sheet in the past. This is an important step towards establishing whether the WAIS is vulnerable to collapse in future, and will ultimately help to address uncertainty in forecasting sea level change. The results will also provide ground truth for models of ice-sheet dynamics and long-term ice sheet evolution, and will help researchers use these models to identify paleoclimate conditions responsible for WAIS deglaciation. The education and training of students (both undergraduate and graduate students) will play an important role in the project, which will involve Antarctic fieldwork, technically challenging labwork, data collection and interpretation, and communication of the outcome to scientists and the general public.
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