A team of scientists from the University of Nevada, Reno, installed fiber-optic distributed temperature sensing equipment to conduct long-term monitoring of climate change effects on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica and its potential for collapse. The equipment continually records temperatures for every meter of the ice shelf and to the ocean bottom 800 meters below the surface, and is monitored via satellite eight times daily.

Half-mile long thermometers were dropped through the ice pack to provide relevant data on sea and ice temperatures for tracking climate change and its effect on the glacial ice surrounding the continent. The objectives of the first field season were to test the drilling design, the fiber-optic installation and sensing, and the logistics of continuous monitoring and power system development for a full year of operation in the harsh Antarctic climate.

"This technology is allowing us to do something never before done -- to record continuous temperature data in and under the ice shelf," said Scott Tyler of the University of Nevada, Reno, who led the team of researchers. "The ice shelves serve as the 'corks' holding the large glaciers of west Antarctica from sliding into the ocean and raising sea level. The melting of the ice shelves from below by warmer ocean water represents a critical unknown in the assessment of Antarctic ice sheet collapse and the potential for very rapid sea level rise around the world. This will allow us to assess the potential for collapse," he explained.

The system continuously records temperature every meter along the cable, which is made from standard telecommunications fiber-optic cable surrounded by armoring to withstand the harsh pressures and conditions of the Antarctic Ocean. After drilling 200 meters through hard ice, the team lowered 800 meters of cable, reaching the ocean bottom where it also can measure the currents. A second hole through the ice was drilled and the cable end was suspended about 50 meters below the ice shelf.

In addition to the data dumps throughout the day, the system will send photos of the installation from a stationary camera mounted on a tower at the unmanned site. The camera will allow them to see if the equipment withstands the harsh weather.