Exploring Antarctica’s depths in preparation for something bigger

By: Patrick Gillespie

Shortly after arriving in Ithaca from Atlanta, Britney Schmidt gathered her research team and packed up their equipment and headed south. Way south!

Schmidt, an associate professor with a dual appointment in Cornell Engineering’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and the College of Arts & Science’s Department of Astronomy, joined the Cornell faculty in July 2021 after spending nearly eight years at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Less than three weeks into her first semester on the East Hill, Schmidt packed up her things and headed out for Antarctica. And while those in Ithaca were enjoying another spectacular autumn in the Finger Lakes, it wasn’t so easy for Schmidt and her team.

After leaving the U.S. on September 17, the team had a longer-than-usual layover in New Zealand due to COVID protocols. Because their work was partially sponsored by Antarctica New Zealand and involved working with New Zealand colleagues, Schmidt’s team would have to live and work out of the agency’s Scott Base for the first time.

“It was a hard season because of the length and COVID,” Schmidt said. “We had a 25-day quarantine; for most of the season we couldn’t even go to the U.S. base.”

But once in Antarctica, the research team had plenty of work to do. First and foremost was exploring the confluence of glaciers, floating ice shelves and the ocean. To accomplish this, the researchers used Icefin—a slender, long-range, deep-water, under-ice, robotic oceanographer. The submarine robot was initially developed using Schmidt’s startup funds at Georgia Tech, but since 2016 has been fully developed by Schmidt’s team with grants coming from NASA, the National Science Foundation, Antarctica New Zealand and the Marsden program. Now, Icefin has moved to Cornell.

Schmidt’s team focuses on how ice and oceans work across the solar system, including Earth.

“Particularly, we focus on Europa, the innermost icy moon of Jupiter,” she says.

Europa is the best place beyond Earth to look for life in the solar system, Schmidt says.

And to prepare for eventual missions to Europa and other ocean worlds, Schmidt and her team are studying polar ice and climate here on Earth.

“We’re trying to explore underwater, under ice, the hardest environment you can image—the most like Europa,” said Schmidt.

And how does a research team explore under the ice of Antarctica? Schmidt and her team cart the modular, 13-foot long, torpedo-like Icefin around the continent, deploying the robot through the ice to characterize sub-ice environments using cameras, sonar, chemical and biological sensors to explore conditions around and beneath sea ice and ice shelves.

For work close to Scott Base and McMurdo Station, the team uses a drill similar to an ice fishing auger to get through the 2-5 meter thick sea ice. However, farther afield the robot must go through much deeper holes drilled using high pressure hot water in order to get under the ice, which can reach more than 700 meters (nearly 2,300 feet or almost half a mile). They then load Icefin onto its 16-foot-high frame and launch it through the ice shelf.

“We developed this tool to get into environments that have never been observed before,” says Schmidt. “It allows us to make transects under the ice and measure the ocean directly where it’s interacting with the ice.”

During this most recent exploration, the team deployed a new sensor onboard Icefin under the sea ice near New Zealand’s Scott Base. The sensor made it possible to understand ice shelf melting and sea ice physics in new ways.

From there, the team flew to a new location with New Zealand’s Antarctic Science Platform program. There, the robot explored a subglacial channel that connects lakes and streams under the Antarctic ice sheet with the open ocean underneath the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest ice shelf on Earth (nearly the size of France).

“We dropped the robot straight into the channel where there was water rushing out from beneath the ice sheet,” Schmidt said. “That has never been done before. It allowed us to see what was happening with the entire hydrology of Antarctica. It’s exciting, looking at the interactions between the water beneath the ice and the ocean.”

And if that five-plus month exploration (including quarantine) wasn’t exhausting enough, Schmidt had little time to rest once she got back to Ithaca.

“I got back the first of March and began co-teaching ASTRO 1102, Our Solar System with Nikole Lewis, [assistant professor of astronomy (A&S)]” said Schmidt.

Looking at future research trips to Antarctica, Schmidt says she and her team have been invited by a group from Norway for a four-month exploration in 2023. They are also working on the fourth generation of Icefin and writing new proposals to understand the Earth and other planets.

Patrick Gillespie is a communications specialist in the College of Engineering.
Cover photo by Dan Dichek. Other photos by Britney Schmidt.

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