Linking Antarctic Cold Desert Groundwater to Thermokarst & Chemical Weathering in Partnership with the Geoscience UAV Academy
Groundwater, Thermokarst, and Soil Evolution in the MDV
Antarctic groundwater drives the regional carbon cycle, accelerates permafrost thaw, and shapes Antarctic climate response. However, groundwater extent, movement, and processes on a continent virtually locked in ice are poorly understood. The proposed work investigates the interplay between groundwater, sediment, and ice in Antarctica’s cold desert landscapes to determine when, where, and why Antarctic groundwater is flowing, and how quickly it will switch Antarctic frozen deserts from dry and stable to wet and disintegrating. Little is known about the extent, chemistry, and duration of groundwater in Antarctic seasonal wetlands. Mapping the changing extent of Antarctic wetlands requires the ability to measure soil moisture rapidly and repeatedly and over large areas. Changing groundwater extent will be captured through an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)-based mapping approach. The project integrates a diverse range of sensors with new UAV technologies to provide a higher-resolution and more frequent assessment of Antarctic groundwater extent and composition than can be accomplished using satellite observations alone. To complement the research objectives, the PI will develop a new UAV summer field school, the Geosciences UAV Academy, focused on training undergraduate-level UAV pilots in conducting novel Earth science research using cutting edge imaging tools. The integration of research and technology will prepare students for careers in burgeoning UAV-related industries and research. The project will deliver new UAV tools and workflows for soil moisture mapping relevant to arid regions common not just to Antarctica but to temperate desert and dryland systems and will train student research pilots to tackle next generation airborne challenges. Water tracks are the basic hydrological unit that currently feeds the rapidly-changing polar and permafrost wetlands in the Antarctic McMurdo Dry Valleys (MDV). Despite the importance of water tracks in the MDV hydrologic cycle and their influence on biogeochemistry, little is known about how these water tracks control the unique brine processes operating in Antarctic ice-free areas. Both groundwater availability and geochemistry shape Antarctic microbial communities, connecting soil geology and hydrology to carbon cycling and ecosystem functioning. The objectives of this CAREER proposal are to 1) map water tracks to determine the spatial distribution and seasonal magnitude of groundwater impacts on the MDV near-surface environment to determine how water tracks drive irreversible permafrost thaw, how water tracks enhance chemical weathering and biogeochemical cycling, and how water tracks integrate and accelerate climate feedbacks between terrestrial Antarctic soils and the Southern Ocean; 2) establish a UAV academy training earth sciences students to answer geoscience questions using drone-based platforms and remote sensing techniques; and 3) provide a formative step in the development of the PI as a teacher-scholar. UAV-borne hyperspectral imaging complemented with field soil sampling will determine the aerial extent and timing of inundation, water level, and water budget of representative water tracks in the MDV. Soil moisture will be measured via near-infrared reflectance spectroscopy while bulk chemistry of soils and groundwater will be analyzed via ion chromatography and soil x-ray fluorescence. Sedimentological and hydrological properties (suction/matric potential, hydraulic conductivity, etc.) will be determined via analysis of intact core samples. These data will be used to test competing hypotheses regarding the origin of water track solutions and water movement through seasonal wetlands. The will provide a regional understanding of Antarctic groundwater sources, groundwater flux, and the influence of regional hydrogeology on solute export to the Southern Ocean and on soil/atmosphere linkages in earth’s carbon budget. The UAV school will 1) provide comprehensive instruction at the undergraduate level in both how and why UAVs can be used in geoscience research and learning; and 2) provide a long-term piece of educational infrastructure in the form of an ultimately self-sustaining summer program for undergraduate UAV education.
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