Antarctic Firn Aquifers: Extent, Characteristics, and Comparison with Greenland Occurrences
Antarctic Firn Aquifers
Snow or firn aquifers are areas of subsurface meltwater storage that form in glaciated regions experiencing intense summer surface melting and high snowfall. Aquifers can induce hydrofracturing, and thereby accelerate flow or trigger ice-shelf instability leading to increased ice-sheet mass loss. Widespread aquifers have recently been discovered in Greenland. These have been modelled and mapped using new satellite and airborne remote-sensing techniques. In Antarctica, a series of catastrophic break-ups at the Wilkins Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula that was previously attributed to effects of surface melting and brine infiltration is now recognized as being consistent with a firn aquifer--possibly stimulated by long-period ocean swell--that enhanced ice-shelf hydrofracture. This project will verify inferences (from the same mapping approach used in Greenland) that such aquifers are indeed present in Antarctica. The team will survey two high-probability sites: the Wilkins Ice Shelf, and the southern George VI Ice Shelf.
This two-year study will characterize the firn at the two field sites, drill shallow (~60 m maximum) ice cores, examine snow pits (~2 m), and install two AMIGOS (Automated Met-Ice-Geophysics Observing System) stations that include weather, GPS, and firn temperature sensors that will collect and transmit measurements for at least a year before retrieval. Ground-penetrating radar survey in areas surrounding the field sites will track aquifer extent and depth variations. Ice and microwave model studies will be combined with the field-observed properties to further explore the range of firn aquifers and related upper-snow-layer conditions. This study will provide valuable experience for three early-career scientists. An outreach effort through field blogging, social media posts, K-12 presentations, and public lectures is planned to engage the public in the team's Antarctic scientific exploration and discovery.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.
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