Science and Implementation Plan: Chapter 4

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet Initiative


The goal of the West Antarctic ice sheet initiative is to answer two fundamental climate questions:

How will the potentially unstable West Antarctic ice sheet affect future sea level?

How do rapid global climate changes occur?

These two questions are strongly linked. The first question centers on the behavior of the West Antarctic ice sheet as a dynamic element of the global climate. Are the atmosphere and ocean systems coupled to the West Antarctic ice sheet in ways such that a climatic warming from present conditions is likely to trigger, or that past climatic changes have already triggered, the marine-ice-sheet collapse mechanism? Attempts to predict the future contributions of the ice sheet to sea level will require models tested with data of past conditions. Many of the critical historic data will come from analyses of West Antarctic ice cores.

The second question takes advantage of West Antarctica as a long-term repository of ancient snow and trapped air. The Greenland experience at GISP2 has demonstrated the temporal resolution achievable in regions with high snow accumulation rates. It also has amply illustrated the need to know the dynamic history of the recovered ice. Because many of the same measurements will be required to answer either question, addressing both with a single coordinated scientific endeavor realizes a significant savings in research effort, logistic resources and funding.

As discussed in the preceding sections, West Antarctica is the only place where both these critical questions can be addressed.


The ability to predict the future will be gained by understanding both the present and the past. Working in the present, scientists can design experiments and measurement strategies to study the actual interaction of ice, ocean, atmosphere, subglacial bed, and lithosphere. From the analysis of such experiments, scientists can construct a sound physical basis for interpreting the historical record from ice cores and geologic evidence and learn more about the response behaviors of each of these key environmental elements.

The understandings of the past and present must be incorporated into numerical models capable of simulating the complex environmental system of ice sheet, polar atmosphere, polar oceans and Earth's crust. This approach is summarized by a set of supporting objectives:

Determine the current behavior and configuration of the West Antarctic environment, including ice-sheet geometry and kinematics, atmospheric circulation patterns and precipitation rates, lithospheric composition and distribution, and oceanographic circulation and heat transport;

Determine the physical controls on the ice motion, particularly the ice streams, how these processes are coupled to the atmosphere, lithosphere and ocean, and what aspects of this linked system drive the system toward or away from stability;

Determine the histories of the climate forcing and of the ice-sheet response in West Antarctica, including possible collapses, over the past glacial/interglacial cycle, and the phasing of these histories with those in the northern and southern hemispheres.

Each of these objectives is intended to provide a necessary element of an accurate numerical model of marine-ice-sheet evolution that is sensitive to the forcings and interactions of the surrounding environment. Information on the current behavior and configuration provides the initial conditions of the model. Physical controls and couplings refer to the governing equations of the model required to properly account for the flow of the ice and feedbacks with the environmental system. Finally, data on the history of this environmental system are needed to test the model and supply essential memory to the model when predictive runs are attempted.


The processes involved in ice-sheet behavior-past, present or future-and the ice-core record involve many interactions between ice, ocean, atmosphere and subglacial bed. This requires that WAIS has multidisciplinary breadth.

The major atmospheric forcings are temperature, snow accumulation and the patterns of storm tracks. These processes are the ones that both maintain the ice sheet and are recorded in the ice core. The ocean circulation on the continental shelves driven by the density field, winds and tides controls basal melting and freezing of ice shelves. The condition of the ocean, the chemistry and presence of nearby open water, affect what is recorded in the ice core. In addition, there is a need to better understand the calving process in relation to ice flow and fracture, and oceanic circulation. Subglacial heat flux, erodibility, and bedrock permeability are critical in the production of basal lubricant. Internal dynamics of the ice, particularly the ice streams, are the final piece of the complex dynamic puzzle that numerical models will seek to solve.

The compilation of an accurate history of the West Antarctic ice sheet, its paleo-environment, and its configuration will also span a variety of disciplines. Cores from the ice, the marine sediment and the subglacial sediment will give time-ordered histories. Exposures on surrounding nunataks will also provide valuable information on former ice-sheet elevations, ages and extent. Finally, features on and within the ice itself will complete a data set that must be comprehensively interpreted.

Lastly, the continuing emergence of a global climatic history will provide the final framework into which WAIS investigators must fit their interpretation of West Antarctic history.


The sharp focus provided by WAIS enhances the research of individual investigators by enabling the Antarctic community to make significant strides toward the WAIS goal of addressing globally relevant issues embodied in the central questions posed above. This focus on a multidisciplinary goal has already fostered open communication amongst scientists, valuable exchange of ideas, and efficient use of field logistics as they work together to arrive at a common understanding of the ice-sheet environment and its connections to the global climate. By explicitly connecting each investigation to the central goal, funding support is utilized more effectively. A management plan to coalesce the efforts of many separate investigations toward this common goal is presented in Section 8.

The U.S. Antarctic Program has invested heavily in many years of research on the Ross Ice Shelf and the substantial portion of West Antarctica that feeds the Ross Ice Shelf. Similarly, the European Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf Programme (FRISP) has focused on that portion of ice sheet that feeds those ice shelves. Very little has been done along the northern coasts, where much of the remaining West Antarctic ice drains northward into the Amundsen and Bellingshausen Seas.


Major factors that determine duration are money, logistics and personnel. In the past, all have served to limit the rate at which WAIS has progressed. Reality dictates that this situation will continue. WAIS should continue at the maximum rate possible, as long as the underlying science remains compelling. The WAISCORES component has identified a multiyear program necessary to collect and conduct initial analyses of two ice cores (see Section 5.1.2.). If substantially increased support for WAIS is secured, by the end of this period, the essential field data necessary to predict the future of the West Antarctic ice sheet will be in hand, along with a more complete understanding of ice-stream motion. However, it is not likely that the sophisticated modeling and exhaustive core analysis necessary to achieve the WAIS goal can be completed within less than a decade and probably longer. To optimize the rate of progress, the WAIS community has begun a series of annually updated Implementation Plans in which the progress of WAIS is assessed and the most urgently needed research for WAIS is identified (see Section 8.).

As WAIS investigators collectively strive to achieve the primary goal, there will be numerous significant accomplishments made along the way. The track record of WAIS richly illustrates the large number of published articles that has resulted from individual research projects. The Working Group has decided to maintain a record of this scientific accomplishment in the form of an up-to-date bibliography. In addition, annual WAIS workshops are becoming an important element in the conduct of WAIS. These serve to remind WAIS investigators of the overall goal and provide the interdisciplinary forum by which information is exchanged and ideas are openly received and discussed.


WAIS researchers are dedicated to maintaining a position at the forefront of educational development and outreach. Each individual in the WAIS community has a personal interest in utilizing every opportunity of interaction as an opportunity to enhance scientific literacy. While many WAIS scientists are active in their own communities, they also are committed to acting as resources to a variety of more coordinated efforts. This commitment takes the form of projects of widely varying scope at the levels of graduate, undergraduate, K-12, and community education. Researchers involved in WAIS initiatives are appreciative of the efforts of the Office of Polar Programs to increase awareness of the need for educational outreach programs and for the strong support of all WAIS-related outreach undertakings. Undergraduate Education - Faculty Development

The Chautauqua Short Course Program is a NSF-sponsored faculty enhancement program for undergraduate college teachers. The courses are designed to infuse the latest scientific knowledge into the undergraduate curriculum by providing teachers with course information and materials. This year Dr. Ellen Mosely Thompson and Dr. Gary Wilson are organizing a short course at Byrd Polar Research Center for visiting undergraduate faculty. The course focuses on scientific investigations of the polar regions that have contributed to knowledge of Earth's history and the sensitivity of these regions to changes in the global environment. Several members of the WAIS community will participate as Course Directors in the four day course. Topics include Antarctic tectonic evolution and record of climatic change, reconstruction of Earth's climate history using ice cores, modeling of polar-regions and global climate links, satellite imagery of polar regions, and history of human activities and development of the Antarctic treaty system. Undergraduate Education - Curriculum Development

Undergraduate courses at many institutions focus on various aspects Antarctic science. A proposal for a formal curriculum development program has been placed before the Directorate for Education and Human Resources. ASPIRE, Antarctic Science and Policy: Interdisciplinary Research Education, seeks to use the natural sciences, primarily life sciences, and the political sciences to educate undergraduate students about the 1) interaction of interdisciplinary natural phenomena on Earth; 2) integration of science and policy in environmental and resource management systems; and 3) development of international strategies to utilize resources that are the "common heritage of mankind." The curriculum will utilize computer technology to facilitate the development of questions by students. The questions will generate answers and new questions, thus students will learn by formulating, exploring and revising hypotheses at their own initiative. The curriculum closes with an interactive, multi-institutional student panel discussion about Antarctic Treaty issues. ASPIRE, led by researchers at Byrd Polar Research Center, includes several WAIS researchers. Undergraduate Education - Research Experiences for Undergraduates

Many WAIS researchers are involved in advising undergraduates in selected Antarctic research topics at their home institutions (e.g., Alley, Pennsylvania State University; Domack, Hamilton College; Kamb, California Institute of Technology; Leventer, University of Minnesota) . The Research Experience for Undergraduates offers students the opportunity to be involved in the scientific process and to contribute to WAIS research goals. This experience in research is invaluable for preparing students to pursue careers in science.

Last season a program, modeled along the lines of the Teachers Experiencing Antarctica initiative, targeted expanded involvement of undergraduates in Antarctic research. Six students participated in an orientation seminar at Hamilton College. The students explored aspects of Antarctic geography, meteorology, oceanography, geology, and ecology as well as the logistics involved in polar research. The students subsequently participated in Antarctic research cruises and conducted research projects at their home institutions. The program was considered highly successful by the coordinators, students and PI's. It is hoped that this effort will be renewed and expanded in the future, with student research projects being closely linked to the research topic of the PI, who will serve as the research advisor.

4.6.2. K-12 Education

In a recent survey of educational outreach by WAIS investigators, everyrespondent mentioned involvement in the local schools. WAIS researchers presented to science classes, assisted in the development of science curricula, and served as science fair judges. In addition to the local outreach programs, WAIS researchers are involved in larger-scale teacher-enhancement and curriculum development programs. WAIS investigators continue to provide support for Office of Polar Programs K-12 outreach initiatives, such as Live from Antarctica, Online Expeditions, and Blue Ice (privately funded).

The GLACIER project (Global Links: Antarctic Climate and Ice Sheet Evolution Research) is a three year project funded by the Directorate for Education and Human Resources and the Office of Polar Programs. GLACIER has two primary facets. The first facet involves developing and piloting a middle school inquiry-driven, cooperative-learning curriculum based on exploration of the Antarctic realm. The curriculum is designed to integrate with the traditional Earth Science curriculum to provide a year-long thematic framework for the science classroom. The second facet of GLACIER focuses on the development of a World Wide Web environment for the general public. The project highlights the evolving partnership between research and education. GLACIER, a direct outgrowth of the WAIS Initiative, involves researchers at Rice University, WAIS investigators, curriculum design specialists at the Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts, and educators from Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Texas.

Linked to GLACIER is the Teachers Experiencing Antarctica (TEA) program, jointly funded by the Directorate for Education and Human Resource and the Office of Polar Programs. Through TEA, teachers are nominated to join ongoing research projects in Antarctica and to contribute as members of the research team. In turn, the TEA participants serve as a conduit of information to many classrooms. TEA participants have joined WAIS investigators in previous field seasons and WAIS researchers anticipate continued involvement in the program.

4.6.3. Community Education

The WAIS community recognizes that public education extends beyond the classroom. It is critical to reach the general public to stimulate interest in, and support for, continued scientific research. Community education efforts, beyond the scope of formal education, include participation by WAIS researchers in summer science camps, presentations to local community groups, museum exhibit development, and creation of materials for dissemination through the Internet.

Many WAIS researchers have placed information about their research on the Internet. Commonly these sites include aspects that can be incorporated in the classroom or information that is presented for the general public. Virtually every educational initiative undertaken within the Office of Polar Programs in the last four years has included an Internet component. ASPIRE, GLACIER, and TEA offer Internet connections designed to strengthen scientific literacy and stimulate further inquiry by visitors.