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Nov. 12, 2008
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

KU student researcher braves Antarctic chill to gauge ice thickness

LAWRENCE — It will be freezing and desolate. But the West Antarctic ice sheet holds scientific mysteries that University of Kansas graduate student Anthony Hoch hopes to solve.

So this month the New Strawn native jets to New Zealand to stockpile provisions and get hold of a subzero wardrobe. Then Hoch will ride on a C-130 military turboprop to McMurdo Station on Antarctica where he will double check equipment and undergo survival training. Next, he will fly to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Base before setting out on a five-day trek across the bitter landscape — to be followed by a month of living inside a tent.

Hoch’s mission is to determine the precise depth of the ice sheet, because that ice could contribute one day to a boost in ocean levels worldwide.

“I’ll be operating a ground-penetrating radar in order to look at ice thickness and to see what’s at the bottom of the ice — and anything else we can see,” Hoch said. “A lot of people say they know exactly how much ice is down there, but until you actually measure it, we don’t know for sure. As far as sea level rise goes — until you know how much ice there is, you don’t know how much water there could be.”

While Hoch is completing his doctoral degree in geophysics, he works as a data analyst with the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, a Science and Technology Center established by the National Science Foundation to measure and predict the response of sea level to changes in the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. CReSIS is headquartered at KU.

Hoch said he is focused simply on compiling useful, reliable information.

“I don’t really look at if the ice is melting or not,” said Hoch. “My research is dedicated to each individual field site where I work. Internationally, there are a large number of groups that work together to gather this data. Then, they put all the data together to determine if overall the ice is melting or not. But I just collect the data. I don’t form the opinions that are released.”

To measure the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the KU student will operate an Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar, which provides a detailed picture of ice thickness and ice bed topography. The device includes a large computer that stays inside a tracked vehicle, with cables leading to antennas arrayed on a large sled.

Hoch will also deploy technology known as a “seismic streamer.”

“The seismic streamer is a concept where we take seismic cables and geophones connect them all in line, so you spend less time moving the geophones between different shot points,” Hoch said. “What is conventionally done now is that each geophone is individually buried into the snow. The streamer takes an idea borrowed from marine seismic surveys, where you should be able to just drag the sensors along and acquire data more quickly.”

The KU student cautions that when operating sensitive equipment at bone-chilling temperatures, sometimes things go awry.

“Machinery breaks down,” Hoch said. “Sometimes, we can fix it in the field. But Antarctica is not a very friendly environment for putting electronics back together. So we take spare parts and we’re well-trained on how to fix equipment in the field — but things do break.”

Whatever the outcome, Hoch said he is appreciative for the research opportunity in Antarctica that he has earned through his job at CReSIS and studies at KU.

“When I first came here I really didn’t know which department I was going to be in,” he said. “Geology was something that I always liked, so I picked it up as a study at KU. Originally I only intended on completing my bachelor’s degree. But the fact that I’m here doing Ph.D. work really amazes me. It’s good work.”

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