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  • Autonomous GPR Surveys using the Polar Rover Yeti

    Abstract: The National Science Foundation operates stations on the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland to investigate Earth’s climate history, life in extreme environments, and the evolution of the cosmos. Understandably, logistics costs predominate budgets due to the remote locations and harsh environments involved. Currently, manual ground-penetrating radar (GPR) surveys must preceed vehicle travel across polar ice sheets to detect subsurface crevasses or other voids. This exposes the crew to the risks of undetected hazards. We have developed an autonomous rover, Yeti, specifically to conduct GPR surveys across polar ice sheets. It is a simple four-wheel-drive, battery-powered vehicle that executes autonomous surveys via GPS waypoint following. We describe here three recent Yeti deployments, two in Antarctica and one in Greenland. Our key objective was to demonstrate the operational value of a rover to locate subsurface hazards. Yeti operated reliably at −30 ◦C, and it has good oversnow mobility and adequate GPS accuracy for waypoint-following and hazard georeferencing. It has acquired data on hundreds of crevasse encounters to improve our understanding of heavily crevassed traverse routes and to develop automated crevasse-detection algorithms. Importantly, it helped to locate a previously undetected buried building at the South Pole. Yeti can improve safety by decoupling survey personnel from the consequences of undetected hazards. It also enables higher-quality systematic surveys to improve hazard-detection probabilities, increase assessment confidence, and build datasets to understand the evolution of these regions. Yeti has demonstrated that autonomous vehicles have great potential to improve the safety and efficiency of polar logistics.
  • Velocity Field in the McMurdo Shear Zone from Annual Ground Penetrating Radar Imaging and Crevasse Matching

    Abstract: The McMurdo shear zone (MSZ) is strip of heavily crevassed ice oriented in the south-north direction and moving northward. Previous airborne surveys revealed a chaotic crevasse structure superimposed on a set of expected crevasse orientations at 45 degrees to the south-north flow (due to shear stress mechanisms). The dynamics that produced this chaotic structure are poorly understood. Our purpose is to present our field methodology and provide field data that will enable validation of models of the MSZ evolution, and here, we present a method for deriving a local velocity field from ground penetrating radar (GPR) data towards that end. Maps of near-surface crevasses were derived from two annual GPR surveys of a 28 km2 region of the MSZ using Eulerian sampling. Our robot-towed and GPS navigated GPR enabled a dense survey grid, with transects of the shear zone at 50 m spacing. Each survey comprised multiple crossings of long (> 1 km) crevasses that appear in echelon on the western and eastern boundaries of the shear zone, as well as two or more crossings of shorter crevasses in the more chaotic zone between the western and eastern boundaries. From these maps, we derived a local velocity field based on the year-to-year movement of the same crevasses. Our velocity field varies significantly from fields previously established using remote sensing and provides more detail than one concurrently derived from a 29-station GPS network. Rather than a simple velocity gradient expected for crevasses oriented approximately 45 degrees to flow direction, we find constant velocity contours oriented diagonally across the shear zone with a wavy fine structure. Although our survey is based on near-surface crevasses, similar crevassing found in marine ice at 160 m depth leads us to conclude that this surface velocity field may hold through the body of meteoric and marine ice. Our success with robot-towed GPR with GPS navigation suggests we may greatly increase our survey areas.
  • Ground-penetrating Radar Profiles of the McMurdo Shear Zone, Antarctica, Acquired with an Unmanned Rover: Interpretation of Crevasses, Fractures, and Folds within Firn and Marine Ice

    Abstract: The crevassed firn of the McMurdo shear zone (SZ) within the Ross Ice Shelf may also contain crevasses deep within its meteoric and marine ice, but the surface crevassing prevents ordinary vehicle access to investigate its structure geophysically. We used a lightweight robotic vehicle to tow 200- and 40 MHz ground-penetrating radar antennas simultaneously along 10 parallel transects over a 28 km2 grid spanning the SZ width. Transects were generally orthogonal to the ice flow. Total firn and meteoric ice thickness was approximately 160 m. Firn crevasses profiled at 400 MHz were up to 16 m wide, under snow bridges up to 10 m thick, and with strikes near 35°–40° to the transect direction. From the top down, 200- MHz profiles revealed firn diffractions originating to a depth of approximately 40 m, no discernible structure within the meteoric ice, a discontinuous transitional horizon, and at least 20 m of stratified marine ice; 28–31 m of freeboard found more marine ice exists. Based on 10 consecutive transects covering approximately 2.5 km2, we preliminarily interpreted the transitional horizon to be a thin saline layer, and marine ice hyperbolic diffractions and reflections to be responses to localized fractures, and crevasses filled with unstratified marine ice, all at strikes from 27° to 50°. We preliminarily interpreted off nadir, marine ice horizons to be responses to linear and folded faults, similar to some in firn. The coinciding and synchronously folded areas of fractured firn and marine ice suggested that the visibly unstructured meteoric ice beneath our grid was also fractured, but either never crevassed, crevassed and sutured without marine ice inclusions, or that any ice containing crevasses might have eroded before marine ice accretion. We will test these interpretations with analysis of all transects and by extending our grid and increasing our depth ranges.