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Researching our future in the Antarctic bedrock: Interview with Prof. Arjen Stroeven, from SU

7 February 2024
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Arjen Stroeven, professor of Physical Geography at Stockholm University, is leading a research team measuring when and how often the East Antarctic ice sheet grows and collapses in interaction with climate change. The expedition DML 2023/24 to Antarctica is conducting their work during the austral summer (December to February).
Photo: Ola Fredin/ NTNU, Norway

What is DML?

The research project MAGIC-DML (Mapping, Measuring and Modeling Antarctic Geomorphology and Ice Change, in Dronning Maud Land), is an international project with participants from Germany, Norway, USA, Great Britain, and Sweden. The project is conducting its third field season (after field seasons in the winters of 2016/17 and 2017/18) and aims to find additional field evidence that constrains ice sheet thinning in coastal areas. It will also initiate a follow-up large international effort led by Stroeven and Stockholm University to study the response of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet to climate change and quantify its contribution to sea level rise for Swedish coastal communities by 2300 (iQ2300).

Preparation for future climate change

We are looking for answers about our future in the Antarctic bedrock. By collecting samples from the bedrock and glacial erratics from mountain peaks that tower over the ice sheet surface, we can use 'historical' data to provide more reliable answers about Antarctica and our own future,” explains the leader of the expedition and professor of Physical Geography at Stockholm University, Arjen Stroeven. 

Q&A with Prof. Arjen Stroeven

Why is it important to do research in Antarctica?

There is an extremely large amount of water bound in the ice sheet in Antarctica. If parts of the ice sheet were to melt away, the consequences for society would be drastic, even in Sweden. If all the ice in both the East and West Antarctic were to melt, we are talking about a sea level rise of almost 60 meters. The poles also have an important function for the climate as a whole. Among other things, they reflect away the sun’s rays during the summer months and thus lower the global temperature. If the Antarctic ice sheet shrinks, that effect will be weaker.

What does the practical work entail?

We visit some areas where the mountain peaks protrude through the ice. Where we find quartz-rich bedrock or glacial erratics such as granite, we take samples. In particular, foreign isotopes accumulate in the quartz mineral when minerals are exposed to cosmic rays after the ice has melted away. It is always uncertain what traces of previous ice thickening we will find.

Photo: Ola Fredin/ NTNU, Norway

What will the samples be used for?

With the help of these various cosmogenic isotopes, such as 10Be, 26Al, 14C, and 21Ne, we can then determine the ice sheet's response to climate change since the last glaciation and over millions of years. This in turn helps us evaluate which inland ice models provide the most probable results and which can provide the most reliable forecast for how the inland ice will change in shape and volume in the future.

How did the research group prepare for the trip?

As a group, we must be very focused. It is important that everyone has clear roles. It is a demanding environment, and cold, despite the fact that it is high summer in Antarctica, and there are dangers associated with cracks that arise due to the movement of the ice and rock falls in the mountain environment. So, group dynamics and trust in each other become very important in order to be able to carry out the expedition in a safe way.

What are the biggest challenges?

The mountain summits in Antarctica are very steep, which makes sampling difficult. Therefore, we look carefully for the few places that are accessible. They are few in number, which leaves a restricted area for sampling.

What is the best thing about going on an expedition in Antarctica?

Despite all the challenges, the results of sampling during previous expeditions have been spectacular. Both those that come from rock surfaces that have been ice-free for millions of years to the samples from mountain peaks that have 'recently' been exposed due to melting. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to research and visit such unique places, with such an exciting history, where the results of what we do play such a big role.

Photo: Ola Fredin/ NTNU, Norway

Follow the project's story and keep an eye on the researcher's real time adventures on the expedition's blog

You can also enjoy the original interview, in Swedish, on SU's website.