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Feature - Thawing out history in the Antarctic

Local scientist studying global climate change from the bottom up



Underneath carpenter Peter Glenday’s mild-mannered exterior lies the heart and soul of an adventurer.

This passion, and university training in computer science and geography, has taken the Whistler resident to Antarctica twice as a volunteer on scientific missions to map climate change.

"It is an adventure," said Glenday, frosting the ground at his feet with fine sawdust as he moved in his chair.

"But it is also the opportunity to do something very few people get to do."

Glenday returned from his latest trip to Antarctica last December.

He volunteered as the team leader for a scientific mission with the University of Illinois in Chicago to withdraw sediment samples from the bottom of polar lakes.

The samples will be thawed and investigated next month.

"There will be an analysis of the layers," said Glenday.

"So there can be some understanding of rate of processes."

It’s not unlike looking at the rings of a tree. By studying the rings experts can speculate on what caused great growth and what hindered it.

The layers in the ice and those from the sediment beneath – amazingly there is sludge at the bottom of these frozen desert lakes – can help scientists understand what was going on in the environment at the time the layers were laid down.

It is likely the core samples taken during the expedition Glenday was on date back 25,000 years.

"We can take that project data and more accurately forecast what is going to happen," said Glenday.

"If anything is going to happen with global climate change it is going to happen there first."

In a similar project some time ago on the Antarctic’s Lake Vida, the ice cores contained several layers of microbes clustered into mats.

Incredibly these came to life when thawed. These microbes were in ice 12 metres below the surface and are around 2,800 years old.

Lake Vida and the three lakes Glenday’s team investigated, Lake Hoare, Lake Bonney and Lake Fryxell are all in the Dry Valleys near the coast of Antarctica, where less than 10 centimetres of snow fall all year and temperatures can drop to minus 30 degrees Celsius.

But it is not just climate change which is of interest to these scientific explorers. The data collected may prove useful to the U.S. space program, as conditions found in the Antarctic and its lakes may be similar to those found on Mars and other planets.

The research is part of a decade long project partially funded by the National Science Foundation and termed the Long Term Ecological Research project.