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Scientific participations

Frank Pattyn

  • language: NL, FR and ENG
  • e-mail:
  • address: Frank Pattyn
    Laboratoire de Glaciologie Polaire
    Département des Sciences de la Terre et de l'Environnement (DSTE)
    Université Libre de Bruxelles, CP 160/03
    Avenue F.D. Roosevelt, 50
    B-1050 Bruxelles
    Tel: +32 (0)2 650 28 46
  • period: October, December, January, February, …

Why you do research in Antarctica

As more than 90% of all land ice is situated in Antarctica, it is not so difficult for a glaciologist (person that studies ice) to end up investigating polar ice sheets. Besides the Antarctic I also study glaciers (in Europe, Russia, USA, …). The main interest in studying the Antarctic ice sheet lies in its unique archive of past climate, the longest and best preserved record to be found in ice on Earth. Understanding the dynamics of this huge ice mass is very challenging (compared to smaller glaciers). Antarctica is a important potential contributor to the future sea level rise. Desintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet alone – one of the most dynamic parts of Antarctica – would result in a sea level rise of 6 meter, albeit that such a scenario is not too likely under the present conditions… Finally, under the 4 km thick ice lies a unique subglacial lake environment that has been cut off from the atmosphere for more than 15 million years!

Your fields of expertise/interest (sea, ice, biology, ...)

glaciology: ice sheets, glaciers, ice streams, subglacial lakes

Needs: what do you take with you on expedition

Expeditions head always to the interior of the Antarctic ice sheet (not the coast or the ocean), which means a lot of logistic support. Either one is dropped of by helicopter or air plane, either by means of overland transport (snow vehicle). Field expeditions are mainly tent camps, using tents for sleeping and a big tent (or caboose) for cooking and scientific work.

For the study of the ice sheet dynamics we use a number of geophysical instruments. Ice thickness is measured using a radio-echo sounder or ice radar. This instrument emits a signal that penetrates through the ice and is reflected at the bottom of the glacier (bed). The ice thickness can be inferred from the time that the signal needs to travel through the ice. Movement of the ice is measured using a precise GPS system. Both parameters are used to feed mathematical models of ice sheet behaviour and allow for a prediction of the behaviour of the ice sheet.

What fascinates you about Antarctica

Polar areas, and Antarctica in particular, are one of the most pristine environments on earth, which makes them also the most vulnerable to change. Working in an area where no one has set a footstep before is exciting and gives the research an aspect of ‘exploration’. Antarctica is also a pure environment, pure air, unpolluted, white and mostly devoid of life. In areas where life forms exist, it is a struggle for survival. Also humans could hardly survive if we did not take sufficient food and shelter with us. And Antarctica is one of the last areas on earth where silence still exists…