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Beleaguered Antarctica Mission Cut Short

Glaciologist Robert Bindschadler was the first person to ever walk on the Pine Island Glacier ice shelf, in January 2008. (Image credit: NASA.)

The lead scientists on a mission to a colossal plain of floating ice in Antarctica announced today (Jan.12) that field work for the project has been cut short — again.

The news comes as a blow to a project that has struggled for several years to begin its work on the Pine Island Glacier Ice Shelf, a spot that many consider to be ground zero in the effects of global climate change.

"We are funded for a second season of drilling, so we will be back," said glaciologist and expedition leader Robert Bindschadler, reached by email. "Most of the camp and scientific equipment is being cached at the PIG Main Camp. This will accelerate our start next year when we hope to drill not just two sites, but three," he wrote.

An ice shelf is the part of a glacier, itself something like a moving river of ice, that extends out to sea and floats atop the ocean. The ice shelf acts as a kind of door stop to the Pine Island Glacier, one of the largest and fastest-moving in Antarctica, sliding into the sea at a clip of about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) per year.

Although satellite observations indicate the ice shelf is melting and thinning, thus allowing the glacier it buttresses to slide into the ocean ever more quickly, the precise mechanisms aren't clear. What is known is that warm ocean waters are the likely culprit. Getting measurements from the ice shelf itself, instead of relying solely on satellite observations, would give scientists a much clearer picture of what is going on and how the ice is being affected by warming global temperatures.

Pine Island and several neighboring glaciers in western Antarctica are responsible for about 7 percent of annual global sea level rise.

"This is where Antarctica is hemorrhaging ice and raising sea levels, and this is where we have to go," Bindschadler said during a teleconference in early November, ahead of this year's field work.

The 2011-2012 season would have marked the first time scientists had the chance to take detailed temperature data throughout and in the ocean waters underneath the ice shelf.

Bindschadler said that many factors contributed to the season's limited accomplishments. "Not the least of these was bad weather — but ironically not bad weather at PIG, rather bad weather at Byrd station," he said. The research station was to serve as a fuel depot for the aircraft ferrying equipment to and from the remote PIG camp. "The planning and level of support could have been more tuned to what we expected the problems to be. Our margins were razor thin, so a little bad weather had a big impact."

The Pine Island Glacier ice shelf recently cracked, part of a natural process by which large icebergs break off and float out to sea, and team members had hoped to witness the moment when the huge berg is severed from the shelf and floats away.

Hampered by severe weather and one episode of equipment failure, some of the researchers finally made it out to the remote ice shelf on an early flight on Jan. 3.

"The weather there was beautiful — a slight breeze and brilliant sunshine," Bindschadler wrote in a blog post.

Yet by today, the field work was over, and, according to his blog, Bindschadler was beginning the long trip home from Antarctica. 

Bindschadler did note that the team was able to set up some equipment at a support camp nearby, but never set up camp on the ice shelf itself.

"We were able to land [on the ice shelf] a few times using a Twin Otter and place some GPS and seismic equipment to collect some information on the dynamic motions of the ice shelf," he said. "A limited success (it was our lowest priority objective), but at least we hit the ball and didn’t strike out."

It appears that the National Science Foundation may have pulled the plug on this year's mission, possibly due to weather-caused transport delays. Helicopters that were supposed to help move equipment from the main PIG camp to their drilling site on the ice shelf never came, Bindschadler said in his blog.

"A decision had been made by NSF the day we left McMurdo that if the [helicopters] were not able to be flown to PIG by Saturday, January 7, this year's field work would be canceled," he wrote.

Yet despite the stumbling blocks, Bindschadler told OurAmazingPlanet he has high hopes for the PIG research. "We can do better, many of us are already thinking of ways to prepare more intelligently for next year, and we intend to take advantage of what we did learn this year," he said. "I expect success next year."

Reach Andrea Mustain at Follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustainFollow OurAmazingPlanet for the latest in Earth science and exploration news on Twitter @OAPlanet and on Facebook.

Andrea Mustain was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a B.S. degree from Northwestern University and an M.S. degree in broadcast journalism from Columbia University.