Digging Antarctica's ancient ice Frozen memories: A team of researchers studies details from the ice of the South Pole to find out more about how Earth's climate has evolved.

Sun Journal

January 20, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BYRD CAMP, Antarctica -- On the incandescent ice between the South Pole and the sea, Paul Mayewski is digging a hole the depth and dimensions of an open grave.

First with a saw, then with a shovel, he frees blocks of snow hardened by eons of wind and heaves them to three men standing clear of the growing hollow.

Nearby, three men cocooned in cold-weather gear assemble a towering steel drill.

The seven men are the only living beings across thousands of square miles in this quadrant of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

They easily could be the first ever to tread this ice.

Not even microbes can survive unaided in the arid and frigid terrain. Without warning, the wind drops the chill this Antarctic summer day to 70 degrees below zero.

Mr. Mayewski, a glaciologist from the University of New Hampshire, and his team have come by airplane, snow tractor, snowmobile and wooden sled to this trackless spot in the interior of the world's highest, windiest and coldest continent to prospect for ancient ice.

He is searching for memories preserved in the undisturbed snow.

Locked in the fragile chemistry of Antarctica's ice fields are the faint residues of gases, isotopes and wind-borne dust that record the world's ancient atmosphere, the changing climate and its growing pollution.

In an archive stretching back more than 20,000 years, the ice sheets record the rise and fall of the oceans, the end of the ice age, the depletion of Earth's ozone layer and changes in the solar energy that drives worldwide weather patterns.

The chemistry also captures the dawn of industrial civilization, the advent of leaded gasoline, the detonation of the first nuclear weapons, enactment of the U.S. Clean Air Act and the steady rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Researchers like Mr. Mayewski are reading such records of Earth's past atmosphere to study how its climate has evolved, and to predict its future.

The evidence they have gathered indicates that Earth's climate is far more mercurial and dynamic than previously believed, prone to erratic fluctuations that might have catastrophic consequences for its most heavily populated regions.

"Without being able to go back in time, it is very hard to understand climate," Mr. Mayewski says. "The ice cores allow us to go back in time."

Mr. Mayewski works in a wilderness of ice 9,800 feet thick, where the natural laws that govern more moderate latitudes seem suspended. Here, it is early morning all month. A day lasts all year. The sun rises in August and sets in February.

With the suspension of temper ate time, even decay and disorder seem to be held in abeyance. A seal carcass lies in a distant valley where the animal died, perfectly preserved after 3,000 years.

Temporary human arrangements become permanent monuments.

In an explorers' survival hut, a table set for dinner in 1912 is undisturbed more than 80 years later.

A penguin prepared for dissection the year the Titanic sank still ,, awaits the surgeon's scalpel, unspoiled.

And the natural result when molecules of hydrogen and oxygen combine is not the free-flowing fresh water of rivers and streams; it is a six-sided, symmetrical crystal of ice.

In all, Antarctica is covered by 5.4 million square miles of interlocking glaciers and ice sheets up to three miles thick. Together they encompass an area broader than North America and Australia combined.

In winter, the continent is girdled by an additional 7.7 million square miles of sea ice -- twice the size of the United States.

The shield of ice that caps the continent is the world's largest body of freshwater -- containing three-quarters of Earth's pure water, yet its frozen surface is drier than the Sahara desert. Antarctica is as cold in parts as Mars, and not as well mapped as Venus.

The thick frost is so omnipresent that those who work in Antarctica rarely call the continent by its proper name. They simply call it The Ice.

It is acquisitive. Having absorbed a continent, it seeks to extend itself. At the onset of autumn, in March, the sea ice grows at more than 22 square miles a minute.

A dozen nations maintain research bases here, but the National Science Foundation, with its squadron of ski-equipped cargo planes and its network of year-round bases, has made Antarctica a kind of U.S. protectorate.

For the first time in a generation, however, the NSF research program, the largest and most prolific on The Ice, is under formal review by Congress. Legislators are having second thoughts about whether the United States still has any crucial national business on the world's most inhospitable continent.

Mr. Mayewski is traveling onto the ice sheet with two students, two drillers and Mark Twickler, associate director of the University of New Hampshire Glacier Research Office, which Mr. Mayewski directs. For a month, they will be isolated on the ice sheet, working out of three small yellow tents and a portable survival hut the size of a pantry.

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