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Crunching Iceberg Data: Q&A with John Helly

John Helly is Laboratory Director for the Earth and Environmental Sciences at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. He and his team conduct research in the application of high-performance computing resources to environmental and earth science problems ranging from data acquisition to modeling and analysis - especially including quantitative visualization. As a principal investigator, John is responsible for establishing joint research projects with colleagues throughout the world and in a wide range of disciplines. His team works in remote sensing, atmospheric and ocean modeling, hydrology, marine geophysics and geology. They also conduct ground-breaking work in the development of digital library technology, atmospheric modeling and quantification of marine environments. John holds a Bachelor's degree in Biology from Occidental College and Master's degrees in Biology from Occidental College and Biostatistics from the University of California, Los Angeles. Helly also has a PHD in Computer Science from UCLA.

Can you give us a brief description of the research you're conducting in Antarctica on the free-floating iceberg's impact on global warming?

Helly: Atmospheric warming has been associated with retreating glaciers and the increasing number of icebergs surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula. The highest concentration of these icebergs is in the NW Weddell Sea, where they drift in a clockwise pattern following the contours of the Antarctic Peninsula through an area dubbed "iceberg alley." Little is known about the impact of free-drifting icebergs on the ecosystem of the Weddell Sea or on the Southern Ocean as a whole. Our job is to see if these "drifting islands" contribute unique physical, chemical and biological characteristics to the surrounding water. To do this, we're using advanced technology, including laser-ranging, submerged acoustic and visible imaging from shipboard, Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), combined with state-of-the-art oceanographic measurements and sampling. Data collected from individual icebergs will be put into broader regional and temporal scales for extrapolation to entire iceberg populations, using satellite imaging. The work is being led by principal investigator, Dr. Kenneth Smith, from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

What made you want to study the Antarctic?

Helly: The Antarctic holds much of the world's freshwater as ice and that's where the ice sheets are rapidly breaking up and forming icebergs. It's a great opportunity to understand land-sea interactions in a new way and apply modern digital methods to the collection and analysis of the data we collect.

Has global warming always been your area of interest or did you start somewhere else?

Helly: Global warming is not really my interest per se, but its effects are so pervasive that it has an impact on virtually everything that is interesting in earth and environmental science. Global warming is by definition, everywhere. However, I've always been interested in water - the ocean in particular. I actually started out doing research in ichthyology, thermal adaptation in fish, as an undergraduate and progressed to modeling of kinetics of biochemical systems. This is my first trip to Antarctica and I can honestly tell you that it's out of this world both in grandeur and its extreme environment. So, it's always a challenge to study this area and try to understand it on all scales of measurement.

What's it like living and working on a ship in sub-arctic temperatures?

Helly: It's exciting, certainly, and some days you can actually go on-deck in short sleeves if the sun is out - even in sub-zero temperatures - because the humidity is so low. You're always aware of nearby hazards. Unlike the tropics, if you go overboard, you're pretty much finished. Given that the water temperature is so frigid that it actually hurts your hand when submerged, we give extreme attention to the edges of the ship. Fortunately, the ship itself is a constant, comfortable temperature.

How do you hope the data generated from your research might impact future generations?

Helly: Well, we hope that our data will provide a better understanding of how the ice interacts with the marine environment and that will enlighten, amaze and inspire future generations at the finely knit structure of the natural world. We're also hopeful that this information will contribute to a rational basis for future management of marine resources and, of course, to the consequences of global warming and human actions in whatever way they interact.