CReSIS researchers return from Antarctica


By Elise Reuter
Winter 2014

After a long flight from New Zealand, 11 CReSIS researchers landed at McMurdo station in Antarctica, the main U.S. research station located on Ross Island. Using research sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the group worked to create a radar system that would map and measure the thickness of ice sheets in in glaciers, ice shelves and sea ice.

CReSIS Researchers

A team of CReSIS researchers prepares to fly to the deep field. Zongbo Wang is pictured second from the left. (Courtesy of Zongbo Wang)

At McMurdo, the team installed several radar systems on a Basler aircraft, including an ultra-wideband (UWB) radar, Ku-band radar, snow radar and a camera system from Google. After the installation was complete, the team flew to the deep field, where they set up camp near Subglacial Lake Whillans and conducted research for more than 20 days before returning the U.S. on January 21.

“We did all of the instrumentation, development and design here at CReSIS, and then we shipped our instrument down to Antarctica,” said Zongbo Wang, Ph.D., a University of Kansas research professor who worked to develop the new UWB radar and a digital receiver. Wang has worked with CReSIS since May to create radar systems, but had never before set foot in Antarctica.

Antenna Array

CReSIS Associate Director of Technology Rick Hale installs an antenna array on the bottom of a Basler aircraft. The antenna is used to pick up signals reflected off ice sheets. (Courtesy of Zongbo Wang)

“The life there is quite different from what we have here," said Wang. "We lived in a tent with a lot of other colleagues, support staff and electricians."

The team stayed in individual tents, with one large tent for research work. They heated snow for water as the average temperature lingered around freezing. Storms rarely inhibited the researchers’ work, and the 24-hour daylight allowed them to work as late as needed.

“If you think about the big picture of what you are doing, this is quite unique and exciting,” said Wang. “Because Antarctica is a completely isolated region, there was nobody else except for the group of us flying over it, doing testing and collecting data with our own instruments.”

To collect the data, researchers transmitted a signal down from an antenna array mounted beneath the aircraft. The signals pierced the ice sheets from the surface and were reflected back up to the aircraft. Then, images of each ice sheet were generated, showing the thickness of each band. The images also show how many layers of ice are in a given structure, and what kinds of features they form. According to Wang, the layers represent the accumulation of snow from year-to-year.

“There is a lot of unknown information hidden inside of the ice sheets, which actually could influence our lives in the long term,” Wang said. “The ice sheets start melting and the sea level increases; the future of our entire world could be changed.”

Antarctic Glaciers

A view of Antarctic glaciers from an airplane window. (Courtesy of Zongbo Wang)

In some places, the melting was even visible to the naked eye. The team plans to share their data online, so different researchers can draw their own conclusions. They are also working on finding new ways to improve their radar system for future missions.

“Before, it was difficult to get this information on layers just because you couldn’t measure it in a very high resolution to retrieve detailed information. The new system increases the resolution by about ten times at the least,” said Wang.

Another challenge is rewiring system sensitivity to pick up weaker signals reflected back from very thick sheets of ice. Wang hopes to have an upgraded system by August, when a Greenland deployment is planned.

“I would say it’s a great application to use radar to understand and get the features of these ice sheets,” said Wang. “Antarctica is still a very secret place for us. Nobody has ever remote sensed the whole part of Antarctica. It’s just an unknown continent. I think there must be someone to go down there, build some instrument, and get some information and this kind of knowledge, even for ourselves.

Antarctic Glaciers

The sun glistens off of Antarctic glaciers seen from the Basler aircraft. (Courtesy of Zongbo Wang)