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Scripps Glaciologist Wins Prize For Her Work In Antarctica

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Aired 8/19/10

Scripps Glaciologist Helen Amanda Fricker was awarded the Muse Prize for Science and Policy in Antarctica for her work on sub-glacial lakes and remote sensing techniques. We'll talk to her about Antarctica, which she calls the most unobservable place in the world, and the work she's doing to detect changes in the ice sheet. We'll also find out about the iceberg, four times the size of Manhattan, which just broke apart from Petermann Glacier in Greenland and began drifting into the Nares Strait.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Antarctica is earth's most mysterious continent. The South Pole is plotted in Antarctica. No humans are permanent residents there. Its land is almost entirely covered in ice. In fact, the first confirmed sighting of this huge continent took place less than 200 years ago. So, it will come as no surprise that scientists still have a lot to learn about this unique, remote land. One of the leading researchers into the Antarctic ice shelf, the glaciers and sub-glacial lakes of the continent is Helen Amanda Fricker, a glaciologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She has been awarded this year's Muse Prize for Science and Policy in Antarctica. And it's a pleasure to welcome Dr. Helen Amanda Fricker as a guest. Good morning.

DR. HELEN AMANDA FRICKER (Glaciologist, Scripps Institution of Oceanography): Good morning, Maureen. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: We invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you have questions or comments about research into Antarctica, glaciers, give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. The Muse Prize was named after a woman. It’s not about somebody who is contributing inspiration to a genius but, rather, it’s Martha Muse, who had a passion for Antarctica. Why are you passionate about Antarctica?

DR. FRICKER: I think it’s the unknown, as you said at the start. It really is an unknown continent still, and there are so many – It’s so vast. There are so many physical processes that are occurring there that we don’t understand and it’s that learning – it’s like a natural learning laboratory for us. It’s also incredibly beautiful and powerful. When you go there, you really just – your breath’s taken away. It’s incredible. So it’s the mystery and the unknown but also the chance to do science in a place that’s remote and a place that matters. I mean, it really does matter. It affects us all globally what happens in Antarctica and Greenland.

CAVANAUGH: Now you first traveled to Antarctica as a graduate student what was your first experience like setting down in Antarctica?

DR. FRICKER: Well, we got there. The most amazing part was getting there. We went there by ship because I actually went with the Australian program. I did my Ph.D. in Australia. We had to sort of eat our way into the ice, through the sea ice. We had to bash our way in with an icebreaker, and that was really amazing. I mean, but going by ship is incredible because you get to see the ice. It gets thicker and thicker as you get close to the continent. You start off with little platelets of ice just bobbing in the ocean, it just gets thick, so you just know that you’re getting – you’re getting closer to this continent. And then when you finally get there, the ship can no longer go any further, and it’s just stuck right there in the sea ice. And you can even walk up to it and put your hand on the bow of the ship. It’s incredible.

CAVANAUGH: And when you get there, when I see pictures of Antarctica, it’s – almost frightens me. It looks like a completely alien landscape. It looks like you’ve landed in another – on another planet. Was that the impression that you got?

DR. FRICKER: It is in some places. When you first arrive, you generally arrive – I mean, even if you go with the U.S. program, you arrive at a base, so you’re there on a base that is – I mean, there’s people there and it’s all operating and there’s lots of things going on and you’ll see lots of activity, people, even cars, all sorts of things that you would – you’d expect anywhere. But then if you go off into the deep field, you’ll usually go by some sort of aircraft. We went by helicopter. You end up being – you land on the middle of nowhere, literally, and you can’t hear anything. There’s no birds, there’s no sound of vehicles, there’s nothing. It’s just completely, well, I mean, you’ll never hear anything as silent as that.

CAVANAUGH: And at the southern tip of the earth, you must experience days of complete sunshine and then days – long stretches of time of complete night. Is that the way it works down there?

DR. FRICKER: That’s right. Generally, most of the field work is done when it’s summer.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

DR. FRICKER: So the austral summer, which is – so people tend to go down round about October, November and they stay through to, say, December, January, maybe even into February because there the time – that’s the time where you get extended daylight and you can do a lot of work and, actually, you can work all through the night if you need to, and people do. But if you – Then people – The people go away. They go back to – come back to wherever they live and some people, a very – probably, say, 10% of all the people would stay there and man the base throughout the winter so – And in that time, it’s dark the whole time. And I’ve never done that but I would imagine that would be very tough being there throughout the darkness.

CAVANAUGH: What is the weather like in the summer months when you were there?

DR. FRICKER: It can be very variable. When I went there, we did experience a particularly cold summer because we got there very early in the season. We were on the ice shelf. We went to the Amery Ice Shelf in East Antarctica and we were there by the middle of October and the temperatures were about -32 degrees. So it was cold, and the wind chill is the hard part because it’s not just the fact that it’s cold but you have a Katabatic wind coming down off the continent, off the ice sheet and that makes you much, much colder. But you’re prepared for it. They give you all the gear and you’ve never worn so many layers ever and you – To be honest, I never really felt incredibly cold. You know, we were prepared.

CAVANAUGH: Well, maybe that’s the test of whether you’re a true Antarctic scientist or not, whether or not you feel cold. Now, I – What do we know about Antarctica? Is our body of knowledge about this huge continent really rather small?

DR. FRICKER: We do – We know a lot. Of course, we know the basic physics of what goes on there but there were processes that we’re learning about even in the last few years that we didn’t know. And we’re learning that things that we didn’t realize were important are important, and it’s definitely an evolving state of knowledge.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Dr. Helen Amanda Fricker. She’s a glaciologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. And she has been awarded this year’s Muse Prize for Science and Policy in Antarctica. What did you win this prize for specifically?

DR. FRICKER: Well, it’s a career award so it’s not just for one specific thing. So it’s achievements, not just scientific achievements but also service to the community and things like that, mentoring. So it’s kind of a prize for a whole lot of things that – so, you know, the nomination package had all these things in there. But it’s supposed to be for a scientist that is yet – that still has leadership potential and it’s supposed to recognize – I think that the person had to have more than 15 years left in their career, was the stipulation, but there was no age given, and to show promise for leadership in the future.

CAVANAUGH: Now what I understand, I think a lot of lay people like myself might think that most of the research about Antarctica is actually done in Antarctica. But what happens, I learned, is that samples are taken, actually physical research is done there and then taken back to labs around the world for people to look at, and that’s what you’re kind of arranging these days, isn’t it?

DR. FRICKER: That’s partly right. Actually – Well, that’s – what you said is true. People do collect samples and bring them back to labs to analyze them and actually at Scripps Institution of Oceanography there is an ice core lab where samples of ice cores have been taken right through the ice sheet, have come back and they’re analyzed right there in the lab because that takes a long time and to do that in the field is just not – It just doesn’t make sense. But I actually am not involved in that type of research. My research involves using satellites to study the ice sheets. The ice sheets are so vast, they’re so big, that to really get a good handle on what’s going on and to monitor them in a whole sense, you need to have a satellite because it gives you the coverage that you need. You need the spatial coverage as well as the temperal coverage and satellites, they achieve that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I guess that’s sort of what I meant. You don’t have to be there to do the research that you’re doing.

DR. FRICKER: That’s right.

CAVANAUGH: And one of the most important things that’s credited to your research is an understanding of subglacial lakes in Antarctica. Tell us a little bit, if you can. Describe it in a way that we can all understand what it is that you found out.

DR. FRICKER: Okay, so underneath the untouched ice sheet, there are bodies of subglacial water that sit between the thick ice cover and the bedrock underneath. And they can be several meters up to – Well, we actually don’t know the depth of many of them. So the ones that I discovered are probably at the order of ten meters, maybe 20 meters deep. And what we discovered by looking at multiple repeats of the same satellite, looking at the surface, we noticed a very strong signal changing on the surface but it was very localized to a certain region and it was in a basin on the ice. And what we worked out was that water is actually moving underneath the ice shelf from one of these basins to another one downstream, and you can see, in the data, you can see the surface elevation above one of the lakes going down where the lake is flooded and then the lake that received the water, the surface has gone up. So what we’re seeing is a signal on the surface of the ice that’s actually reflecting what’s going on at the base. And in some cases this can be one, two kilometers thick of ice. So it’s quite amazing that we’re picking up by satellite what’s going on at that depth because it’s a very unknown environment. The subglacial environment is very remote, probably the most inaccessible place on the planet.

CAVANAUGH: And I think it’s important to point out, too, we’re not talking about anything melting causing these subglacial lakes. What they’re – they are there naturally.

DR. FRICKER: That’s right. Well, we are talking about melt – I mean, it’s there because of melt but that’s due to the pressure of the ice above it, it’s not to do with climate, and that’s the important point. I mean, the bed of the Antarctic ice sheet is completely blanketed from anything that goes on in the atmosphere. So any change in temperature is not going to affect what’s going on under one, two kilometers of ice.

CAVANAUGH: Now you said in the beginning when we started to talk about Antarctica and how – really what a remote and even sort of a romantic place it is because it’s so mysterious, that it is actually very important what goes on there in terms of the earth’s oceans, etcetera. What do we know about the give and take between this frozen mass of ice sheet in Antarctica and the health or the volume of our ocean?

DR. FRICKER: Well, we know that at the edges, all the margins, as we call them, of the ice sheets, we have ice shelves. And ice shelves are attached to the continent so they’re part of the ice sheet but they are floating on the ocean. And in that region most of the mass that comes off Antarctica is lost. Mass has to come off Antarctica because it gets added by snow accumulation and if that – if you didn’t lose mass it would just grow and grow and grow. So to lose that volume, we need to have these processes and in the ice shelves we have loss, at the ocean edge from iceberg carving and basal melting underneath so we know that the ocean has a profound affect on the Antarctica ice sheet because any changes in the circulation of the ocean or the temperature of the ocean will affect the amount of melting underneath, we call it basal melting, or the effect – or the amount of iceberg carving. And then you get an imbalance in the mass of the ice sheet and that’s when sea level rise becomes a factor because you get more mass coming off Antarctica, which is then going to go into the ocean. That will increase sea level globally.

CAVANAUGH: So what you’re saying is the process of ice going into the ocean from Antarctica is something that is normal and goes on all the time. What timeframe, though, are we talking about? You know, everybody talks about glacial speed, you know, you kind of – it’s just so slow. Is this a process that has a certain cycle to it?

DR. FRICKER: Yes, and that is part of the problem because a cycle is several decades. For example, say, again, the Amery Ice Shelf, which I’ve studied the iceberg carving cycle of that particular ice shelf. Very large icebergs come off it approximately every 60 or so years. We’ve only had satellites up there for about that time, so we don’t have that record. We don’t know. We’ve only had one cycle, really, of change of very good observations to look at.

CAVANAUGH: Just one cycle?

DR. FRICKER: Even just part of a cycle because 60 years ago we didn’t really have that good satellite data anyway.

CAVANAUGH: So this really is a land that just has so much yet to be discovered.

DR. FRICKER: That’s right.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, and you’ll forgive me, I’m about to ask a series of very stupid questions but I figure perhaps if I don’t know there may be other people listening who don’t know. There’s a big difference between Antarctica and the North Pole in the fact that Antarctica is an ice sheet, which means that the ice is on land. What is the ice at the North Pole instead?

DR. FRICKER: The Arctic is sea ice. So that is ice that is sitting on top of the ocean and there’s no land mass below it, so it’s very different.

CAVANAUGH: And Greenland shares what Antarctica has in the fact that there’s this large ice sheet that covers a huge amount of that particular land mass, is that right?

DR. FRICKER: That’s right. Antarctica and Greeland are both continents so there’s bedrock there, there’s rock which – but then there’s ice cover on top of that rock. So that’s what Antarctica and Greenland have in common.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know that your study is in Antarctica and not Greenland but we were – we heard – There was a news story just a couple of weeks ago about an iceberg four times the size of Manhattan, an ice sheet that detached from a glacier in Greenland, began floating. How significant is an event like that?

DR. FRICKER: So the ice, first of all, it – I caught a few reports that said it was an ice sheet that broke off and it’s part of an ice sheet. I mean, the Greenland ice sheet is still there.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

DR. FRICKER: What the Greenland ice sheet did a couple of weeks ago was carved an iceberg, which is the process that I’ve talked about that occurs…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

DR. FRICKER: …in Antarctica as well. The key thing about the Greenland event is that the Petermann Glacier, which is in the northwest of Greenland, well, the first thing is that it was the last remaining long floating glacier tongue that we know of in Greenland and now about half of it is gone. So it means that there’s very few of these floating tongues left in Greenland. The other thing that’s important about that particular event is that it’s in the north of Greenland and most of the very strong dynamic changes that we’ve seen in Greenland have been mainly in the south. And it’s showing that changes are occurring in the north. However, I do need to say that, as I already said, iceberg carving is a natural process that does occur and it’s part of this mass loss process for both ice sheets. And to say that the Greenland event is definitely linked to climate, well, we can’t really say that for sure. I mean, we need to keep monitoring.

CAVANAUGH: Indeed, that was going to be my question. This is a natural process. How are scientists beginning to try to figure out whether or not this is a natural process that would’ve happened no matter what’s going on basically in the climate, even if the climate stayed stable, or that it is being accelerated in some way because of a warming of our climate?

DR. FRICKER: Well, that’s right. Well, to look at – We have to look at records over the past several years and keep monitoring as well. There is evidence, I believe, that the Petermann Glacier carving front is now further back than it ever has been but there is also evidence that it has carved approximately every 15 years for the last 60. So this isn’t a completely unusual event but it is part of a pattern of things, of a change signal in Greenland in general. There is definitely a lot of thinning around the edges, around the margins, so it’s definitely mass loss from that ice sheet to the ocean that we know of. And this is just reminding us what a dynamic system the Greenland ice sheet is.

CAVANAUGH: Do we know so little about Antarctica that we can’t even tell right now whether or not that continent is being affected by any kind of change in climate?

DR. FRICKER: No, we actually do know because from satellite studies we can see. There are several satellite studies that are independent and they use independent techniques and they all show that both the Greenland ice sheet and the Antarctica ice sheet are losing mass to the ocean. The amount is not large at the moment. It’s on the order of under a millimeter per year – per year’s sea level rise globally, but the potential is there for a much larger effect on that. If you melted all of Antarctica, you would get 65 meters, which is over 200 feet or just under 200 feet of sea level rise. That’s all Antarctica. Greenland is about 7 meters. So the potential is there for a very large effect. Even if you just melted a small percent of Antarctica, you’d get a large sea level rise effect, so that’s the difference.

CAVANAUGH: I was just going to say I’m speaking with Dr. Helen Amanda Fricker. She’s a glaciologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She’s been awarded this year’s Muse Prize for Science and Policy in Antarctica. When you were talking about – I know that scientists do science for the sake of doing science. I mean, that there’s a pure research idea of wanting to learn something just for the sake of knowing it, for more information about what our planet is up to and how these processes interact with one another. Do you think of what larger implications your work might have on the understanding of either our climate or our ocean? Have you made that leap? Or are you just so involved in tracing this basic science that you’re doing about the subglacial lakes in Antarctica that that’s enough for you?

DR. FRICKER: Well, it’s a bit of both. I mean, you definitely get – It’s definitely very exciting to be in – sort of at the forefront of this type of research and to make a discovery that really was – it was the last step in this. I mean, there were a couple of other studies using other data that had hinted at these lakes being there but to actually then completely get the result with the data that I used was great. And to know that that is going to fit into a bigger picture was particularly, you know, very satisfying to know that you’re going to be solving part of a puzzle. And I think of it as a team. I mean, the glaciological community is very – there’s some great people involved in that work and we’re sort of working as a big team and we’re all around the world and we’re all doing different parts of the puzzle and trying to work together as much as we can and not just working with glaciologists but, of course, working with oceanographers and atmospheric scientists. And you have to really involve everybody because it is such an important topic.

CAVANAUGH: Is it, relatively speaking, a small band of people in this – investigating Antarctica and the ice sheet? Do you all kind of know each other?

DR. FRICKER: Yeah. There’s a lot of people that – I mean, it probably is quite small if you think about it in terms of all the geophysicists, yeah. Yeah, it’s – maybe it’s about 10% of all geophysicists. I couldn’t say for sure but it is – it is quite a – People do know each other quite well in that community, which is a good and a bad thing.

CAVANAUGH: What’s bad about it?

DR. FRICKER: Well, you know, you know what people – what other people – You kind of – You’ve already worked with them on other things or, I mean…

CAVANAUGH: Personalities get involved.

DR. FRICKER: Possibly. I don’t want to say.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you an easier question. The Muse Prize, I know, comes with a $100,000 prize attached to it. Is that correct?

DR. FRICKER: That’s right.

CAVANAUGH: What will you be using that money – What are – Let me ask you this way, what do they want you to use that money for? Or is it at your own discretion?

DR. FRICKER: You know, people keep asking me this question and I really don’t know what they have in mind because they haven’t said and I’ve had no further communication with them apart from you’ve been selected and also the interaction about where I’m going to receive the award because they actually wanted me to go to Buenos Aires at 10 days notice, and that was impossible. So I’ll be receiving the award in December at the annual – the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco and, hopefully, by then I will know what’s expected of the way it will be spent and how – I have no idea how it will even be awarded. So I can’t make any decisions now but I – obviously, I have some ideas and I’ve been talking to people and I will definitely be using it to benefit my group and research and…

CAVANAUGH: And what is a group like at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography? Are there a lot of people working on the same thing that you are in Antarctica? Or is it – Do you have a – In other words, do you have a small team there all working on the same thing?

DR. FRICKER: I am building up a group. I have currently two post-docs and I have two coming. I have two students and one coming. So, you know, we’re growing. And at the moment I’m the only faculty member associated with that group but there are other people at Scripps Institution of Oceanography who work in the polar regions so we have a polar group. So we are – it’s growing.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know you haven’t been to the Antarctic for a while. Do you plan on going back any time soon?

DR. FRICKER: Well, I personally won’t be able to go any time soon because I have very small children. But I send people every year and I will be sending one of my team members this year in November to take part in a field project.

CAVANAUGH: That’s wonderful. I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today.

DR. FRICKER: Oh, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Helen Amanda Fricker. She is a glaciologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and she’s been awarded this year’s Muse Prize for Science and Policy in Antarctica. If you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, it’s our Weekend Preview as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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