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From Earth to Mars: Studying Climate Change in Antarctica

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I first became fascinated with glaciers during two summer seasons in Alaska while working on a cruise ship as a harpist. I would perform in a lounge at the top of the ship surrounded by windows and would watch in awe as we sailed past glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park as I performed. This was followed by three world cruises and many months sailing through Scandinavia where I was mesmerized by glaciers and icebergs in areas such as Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard, and Norway, and even sailed precariously through icebergs to reach the southern extend of the seasonal sea ice. One of my absolute favorite experiences was sailing through the gorgeous scenery of the narrow Norwegian Fjords. During my time off, I would escort tours to the glaciers and learn about the characteristic glacial terrain and how to climb and hike on top of the ice itself.

Maria Banks

Now, as a scientist and a post-doctoral fellow with the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum, I look at glaciers and ice sheets a little differently and have the opportunity to study them in detail. To understand more about ice sheets and climate change on Earth, I will be working for three months as part of an ice core drilling project (WAIS Divide Project) that will ultimately collect ice that was deposited as snow on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet over the last approximately 100,000 years. Layers in this ice contain clues to past climatic conditions on Earth and changes that have occurred over the last 100,000 years.  For example, air bubbles trapped in the ice contain greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane) which tell us the levels of these gases in the past and the chemical makeup of the water can be used as a thermometer to measure the temperature when the snow fell.

As a planetary geologist, I have also studied ice on Mars. Mars has both north and south polar caps, similar to the ice caps on Earth, that also contain layers with information about past climates and environmental conditions. Learning more about the clues hidden in the Earth’s ice layers will provide further insight into understanding what is recorded in the ice layers on Mars. Personally, I am also very excited about spending time in Antarctica as its low humidity and very cold temperatures make it the closest Earth analog for conditions on the surface of Mars. This is the closest I can get to experiencing what it would be like to live on Mars!

South polar cap of Mars in summer. Image taken by Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) on April 17, 2000. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

My job in this project is to live at the field site on the ice sheet and work as a science technician handling, logging, and preparing ice cores as they are acquired, using an ice core drill called the DISC drill, to later be shipped back to the United States for analysis. I will do this for three months and will live in an unheated tent during the Antarctic summer!

To see a detailed report on my daily work and adventures in Antarctica, please visit my blog at: http://www.adventures-in-climate-change.com/adventures-in-climate-change/Antarctica/Antarctica.html

Maria Banks is a post-doctoral fellow with the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum.

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3 thoughts on “From Earth to Mars: Studying Climate Change in Antarctica

  1. Thats some great work and very interesting. Thanks for blogging about it. I found it very interesting to know that Mars and the Earth share such similarities as far as ice caps go.

  2. That’s not very helpful because you don’t tell how mars and Antarctica’s atmosphere is similar.

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