SOCORRO – From Antarctica, Rick Aster has had a close-up view of Earth’s melting ice.
As greenhouse gases warm the planet, mountain glaciers have been the first to go, and Greenland’s huge ice sheet is shrinking. But the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet, a bit of a dark horse in the grim race, is catching up, according to Aster, a geophysicist at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.
Known for his studies of earthquakes, Aster might seem a bit far afield on an ice field in Antarctica. But many of the tools used to measure the movement of rocks, especially seismometers and Global Positioning System sensors, are proving invaluable in measuring not only the rocks of Antarctica but also the ice that sits atop it, Aster said in a recent interview in his New Mexico Tech office.
Aster will give a public lecture on “The Future of Ice on Earth” Friday in Albuquerque.
Aster’s Antarctic work is being done through the Polar Earth Observing Network, an international effort that includes a major component funded by the U.S. government’s National Science Foundation. He’s been to Antarctica on 10 research trips so far, with more planned.
Traveling the continent, he said, “is like a space expedition” because of the remoteness of the field areas where he and his colleagues are installing their instruments. “You’re about as far away from humans as you can be anywhere on Earth,” he said.
Antarctic ice is particularly vulnerable to warming of the adjacent seas, according to Aster. While the rate of warming of Earth’s atmosphere has slowed in recent years, ocean temperatures, another key indicator of global warming, have continued rising unabated.
“There’s tremendous thermal capacity in the oceans,” Aster said.
Because of the potential of melting ice to raise sea level as the planet warms, the information the scientists collect is critical. And because Antarctica is such a remote and difficult continent, much of the necessary study is just beginning, Aster said.