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La Jolla Researchers Aren’t Stopped By Antarctica’s Melting Runway

Above: The C-141C Starlifter aircraft from the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, March Air Reserve Base, California, approaching the Pegasus runway at McMurdo Station in Antarctica .

January is the hottest month in Antarctica. Temperatures average around a balmy 26 degrees Fahrenheit at McMurdo station, a U.S. research base where scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla work.

Aired 1/2/13 on KPBS News.

News that global warming is causing some of the runways in Antarctica to melt caused some concern among San Diego researchers.

So San Diego researchers were concerned over news that global warming might be causing an Antarctic runway made out of ice to melt. Glacial ice runways are used in Antarctica to land heavy cargo planes carrying equipment, supplies and people.

But George Blaisdell, an operations manager for the U.S. Antarctic Program, said the melting runway belongs to the Australians. Even though the American runway is also made out of ice, it isn’t having the same problems.

Part of the reason, he said, is location. The U.S. base is 850 miles closer to the South Pole, which means its temperatures average about 6 degrees Fahrenheit colder.

COMNAP

A map of Antarctica showing international research stations. The U.S. and Australia bases are marked with blue stars.

Another reason is that the U.S. runway, called the Pegasus runway, is covered with a packed layer of snow. The snow was put there on purpose, because it reflects light better than ice does.

The Australians, Blaisdell said, haven’t been able to make this snow pavement on their Wilkins runway.

“So while they’ve tried on several occasions to get a snow pavement on, and I’m convinced that if they were able to get it on there, they could make it stay there," he said.

Australia’s runway also has more contaminants that cause more melting, he said.

Blaisdell said records suggest the runway could be melting because of climate change, but says there isn’t enough data to speak definitively.

“It’s such a short period of time to have data that we’re watching this closely to be able to say clearly that, 'aha, we’re having melting problems here and it’s obviously the result of climate change,'" he said. "We can’t say that. But we can certainly say the records that we have that show the record temperature in July is up 0.2 degrees compared to five years ago.”

To get around their melting runway, Blaisdell says the Australians are using the American runway and then flying in ski planes to their base 850 miles away.

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