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WAISCORES: A Science and Implementation Plan for Climate, Cryobiology and Ice Dynamics Studies in West Antarctica
Authors: Ice Core Working Group
Year: 2000

Abrupt changes in climate and sea level, and emerging issues in biocomplexity and life in extreme environments, offer great opportunities and challenges for humanity. A more complete understanding of these topics is needed to make sound policy decisions. Although these topics are of global significance, ice cores from Antarctica are among the best ways to advance our knowledge about these socitally relevant topics.

Large, abrupt climate changes have dominated the earth's history, but have not occurred during the few millennia when humans invented agriculture and industry. If similar large and rapid climate changes occurred now there would be major societal impacts. Current hypotheses suggest that human activities could cause the return of abrupt climate changes.

Investigation of biological process in extreme environments provides insights on the adaptability of life, evolutionary processes, astrobiology, and might lead to useful products for humanity. The bottom of ice sheets is one of the few remaining terrestrial environments that has not been studied by biologists. Antarctic ice also contains continuous and well preserved samples of biological material from previous times. The West Antarctic ice sheet has the potential to change rapidly, affecting global sea levels and coastal populations. Ice sheets and sea level are known to have experienced large and rapid changes in the past. The West Antarctic ice sheet is still responding to past climate changes, in ways that we do not fully understand. Recent reductions in the size of ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula raise our concern.

A deep ice-coring program in West Antarctica is an excellent way to explore these climate, biology and ice dynamics topics. The investigation of these topics is synegistic and can not be completed individually.

Some of the specific topics that will be address are listed below.

  • What are the characteristics of natural climate change during the last 60,000 years?
  • Is recent climate change abnormal?
  • What is the influence of solar activity on climate?
  • How did the Southern Hemisphere respond to the well-documented abrupt climate changes in the Northern Hemisphere?
  • What was the relationship between climate and atmospheric carbon dioxide during preindustrial times?
  • What biological activity occurs at the contact between the bottom of the ice sheet ice and the bed?
  • What biological activity occurs within the ice sheet?
  • What does a continuous collection of biological material spanning the last 100,000 years tell us about ecological and evolutionary process?
  • How is the West Antarctic Ice sheet changing and what is the influence of this change on sea level?

These topics are of global significance, yet the United States Antarctic Program is uniquely qualified to support the field component of this program. International science planning documents assume the completion of this program by the United States. The proven United States ability to drill and analyze deep ice cores is the backbone of this project. For the first time the biology community is involved in the initial planning of a deep ice-coring program, assuring biology will be fully integrated into the program. Associated atmospheric and glaciology investigations will improve interpretation of the biologic and climatic records in the ice core, and determine the implications for ice-sheet influences on sea level.

The program will require significant resources. The ice core drilling equipment will require refurbishment. A sterile drilling system needs to be developed for the basal biology portion of the program. One large field camp, and possibly a smaller refueling camp, will be required. About 30 individually proposed science projects would be involved in the program. Preliminary work has been funded to assist in the selection of the drilling site. If resources were available drilling could start in 2003/2004 and take about 5 field seasons.

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