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Ice Mountain
February 07, 2003
glacier for cover page
image: ABC News

This winter has been a frosty reminder of bitter seasons past. But it's not so bad compared to what a group of scientific adventurers endured. The team was on a mission to measure climate change in an effort to learn whether the Antarctic ice cap is shrinking or growing.

Ice Flight

Braving the Antarctic's bitter cold is all in a day's work for researchers scouring the planet for clues about global warming.

As shown on PBS’s NOVA, one group of researchers scaled the Antarctic's highest icy peak, Vinson Massif, on a route never taken before.

"We want to know whether a glacier or ice sheet is growing or shrinking, and to understand that we have to understand what's going into the glacier, how much ice is accumulating on an annual basis," Dan Stone, senior hydrologist with Boulder Colorado’s Geomega, told NOVA while trekking up Vinson.

Knowing how much snow accumulates annually will help them do that.

image: ABC News

In Antarctica, most accumulation studies have been done at the lower elevations. No one had studied accumulations this high in the continent’s mountains before.

To gauge each year's snowfall, the team dug a series of pits at different elevations as they made their way up Vinson--not easy to do because over time the snow turns to ice and becomes part of the thick ice sheet that covers the continent.

"The snow will just keep getting harder and harder the deeper we dig," Stone told NOVA.

But after they dug through the more than six feet they needed to, they counted and measured the snow layers like the rings in a tree. With each pit, Stone and the others learned more about the snow and the way it changes seasonally.

Scientists worry that Antarctic ice that melts away or breaks off into the ocean could raise sea levels that would engulf coastlines around the world.

A study published in the journal Science indicates that at the current rate of melting, a part of the Antarctic ice sheet the size of Texas and Colorado combined will disappear in 7,000 years. That could push sea levels up sixteen feet. One of the study’s authors, John Stone, associate professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington, said a sudden thaw that “released even a small fraction of that amount could have disastrous consequences on coastal regions."

rocket liftoff
image: NASA

While Dan Stone evaluates what he learned, other scientists will avoid getting cold feet by letting NASA’s newly launched satellite, Icesat, measure the Antarctic's ice for them.

NOVA airs on PBS. For more information, visit

The Study published in Science was supported by the National Science Foundation.

by Orrin Schonfeld

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