Adventure Meets Science en Route to the Pole

The Willis Resilience Expedition is a two-part Antarctic expedition, involving both scientific discovery and human endurance. 19-year-old explorer Parker, a sophomore at Yale University, and his team will conduct a coast-to-pole-to-coast survey, covering thousands of kilometers of untested Antarctic territory. Their data will contribute to a deeper understanding of global climate patterns.

The Science

The expedition involves three separate, scientific projects :

  1. A study of the deposition rate of Tritium, a radioactive isotope of Hydrogen, across Antarctica. The data will be applied to better understand the global water cycle, which is important to understanding climate change.
  2. Isotopic Composition of Surface Snow Across Antarctica.
    A Coast to Coast Survey of the variability of isotope composition in precipitation across Antarctica, covering 640km of never before sampled ice. The data will be used to identify recent climate trends in Antarctica and thus gain a better understanding of the global water cycle.
  3. ColdFacts 3000BX Weather Station Performance Test.
    The first Antarctic test of the lightweight, easy to deploy, mobile weather station. Performance indicators will help improve the station for possible future permanent deployments on the continent. The data collected will be compared against nearby established stations for indication of accuracy.

1. Variability of Tritium Deposition in Surface Snow Across Antarctica

Partner: GNS Science New Zealand

Tritium is a radioactive isotope of Hydrogen with a relatively short half-life of 12.5 years. It occurs naturally at extremely low levels and is produced when atmospheric particles interact with cosmic rays. Tritium levels can be used to date water samples up to 150 years old with seasonal resolution.

Thermonuclear tests in the early 1960s resulted in a human-caused spike in Tritium levels around the world. In Antarctica, these levels were well-established from snow pits taken in the 1970s. However, it has been more than two decades since the bomb-Tritium has been completely removed from the atmosphere (by wash-out and decay). The deposition of natural (cosmogenic) Tritium is not yet well studied. This cosmogenic Tritium is the most effective tool in studying the dynamics of the global water cycle. Therefore, the deposition of Tritium via snow and rain needs to be understood.

The Willis Resilience Expedition will create snow pits at up to 15 sites across Antarctica, and take samples at close intervals. Snow will be contained in specially sealed bottles, which will protect the integrity of the sample even as it melts into water in higher temperatures. Up to 200 samples will be collected in total from these snow pits. Watch live dispatch from Antarctic sampling site

This research program is in partnership with GNS Science (a New Zealand Crown Research Institute), which houses the world’s most accurate Tritium analysis platform. The next step after the expedition is for the samples to be sent to New Zealand for analysis.

2.  Isotopic Composition of Surface Snow Across Antarctica: A Coast to Pole Survey

Partner: International Atomic Energy Agency

The stable isotope composition of precipitation at high latitudes is affected by a number of geographical (e.g. elevation) and climate (e.g temperature) factors. Scientists can use the stable isotope composition of snow at certain depths to reconstruct climatic conditions at a particular time in the recent past (the relationship between isotopic composition and local temperature has also been applied to deep ice cores going hundreds of thousands of years into the past). Studying the relationship between stable isotope composition of precipitation and local climate is important in understanding the dynamics of the global water cycle, and is therefore fundamental to understanding climate change.

Many surface isotope surveys have been conducted in Antarctica, but there remain large parts of the continent that have not been studied. Our route covers 640km of unstudied territory between the South Pole and the Ross Ice Shelf. This leg of the journey has a large altitude range of around 8,500 vertical feet and passes over a glacier, through the Transantarctic Mountains, and over the Antarctic Plateau.

Up to 10 snow pits will be created and sampled across the continent during the course of the expedition, ranging between one and four meters in depth (depending on the thickness of annual snow layers at each site). Samples will be taken at regular depth intervals. Each site will vary significantly in terms of the number of years studied. Up to 950 samples may be collected during the crossing.

Many of the samples will be sent to the International Atomic Energy Agency isotope hydrology laboratories in Vienna for analysis after the expedition. The resulting data will become a part of the Global Network of Isotopes in Precipitation (As was data collected during Parker’s 2012 expedition to the North Pole) but will also contribute to other existing and new projects.

3. ColdFacts-3000BX Weather Station Performance Test

Partner: ColdFacts

Surface observations in Antarctica are becoming increasingly important, both for scientific and logistical reasons, but there are currently only about 160 weather stations in Antarctica (many of which concentrated in one small area in the vicinity of the Ross Ice Shelf). This is a very small number, given that Antarctica’s area is around 50% larger than that of the United States.

Weighing just 9kg, the ColdFacts-3000BX has a foldable design capable of retracting to only about a meter in length. It can transmit information on temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed, and wind direction, nearly 60 times per day.

While the capabilities of the station are slightly more limited than many of the sophisticated systems deployed permanently on the continent, the ColdFacts-3000BX is very lightweight and can be deployed with ease by an explorer or scientist in the field, even if they have little or no logistical support.

The ColdFacts-3000BX is the first ColdFacts beacon to be deployed in Antarctica, with previous versions being deployed primarily on the Arctic Ocean. The instrument has been in development for over 10 years, with the first model being deployed on the 2005 Pole Track expedition to the North Pole by Willis Resilience Expedition team leader Doug Stoup and polar explorer Marc Cornelissen (who leads the ColdFacts platform).

The weather station will be deployed near Union Glacier camp (79°46’S 82°52’W) and tested over a period of approximately five weeks, before being removed from the continent at the beginning of the New Year. The data will be compared with data collected by sophisticated and robust weather stations already in place nearby. The deployment will provide insight into performance of the station in Antarctic conditions and pave the way for future permanent deployments across the continent.

Advisory Board

To ensure that the science behind the Willis Resilience Expedition is carried out with the upmost professionalism, Parker will have access to the advice and council from an advisory board of world-renowned scientists and consultants:

  • Uwe Morgenstern (GNS Science)
  • Nancy Bertler (Victoria University of Wellington)
  • Valerie Masson-Delmotte (Institut Pierre Simon Laplace)
  • Rowan Douglas (Willis Research Network)
  • Jonathan Brearley (former Director of Energy Strategy and Futures in the UK Department of Energy and Climate)

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