$1.7 Million NSF Grant for TAMU-CC to Fund Climate Change Research in Antarctic Waters

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – While many of us have seen viral videos of icebergs crashing into the sea, few have ventured to explore what lies beneath the ocean’s surface that’s causing such phenomena. Why are the icebergs melting so fast, what levels of methane and petroleum is this ocean ice trapping, and how will the release affect the overlying ocean and atmosphere?

Dedicated to contributing to a better understanding of this question is Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s Dr. Richard Coffin, Professor and Chair of the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences. Coffin, in collaboration with an expert team of researchers from around the world, will explore the phenomena of sea warming during two expeditions off the coast of the Antarctic, starting in December 2022. The research is funded by a $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation and will be dispersed over the next three years.

“Civilization’s impact on climate change will only be determined with a thorough understanding of the natural cycle,” Coffin said. “Science thus far has primarily focused on the Arctic region ice melting; understanding the current and previous warming periods requiring a more thorough study of the Earth from the North Pole to the South Pole and in between. One area of the planet that has become central to the conversation surrounding climate change is the Antarctic.”

Coffin says that the Earth’s oceans, ocean floors, and atmosphere experiences have complicated carbon cycling over tens of hundreds of thousands of years. In earlier years, this was a natural process that involved temperature changes and related cycling of carbon dioxide. Today, there is appropriate concern that the human anthropogenic carbon release contributes to the natural warming cycle and elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

The NSF-funded project is also currently being organized for collaboration with New Zealand researchers working in the same area of research and data sharing. From a total of five expeditions throughout this time, the data collected will provide opportunities for a thorough database to better understand the warming of the Ross Sea.

“This project is a strong contribution to our college’s recognition as a global leader in offshore gas hydrate and climate change research,” Coffin said. “While most studies focus on the Arctic, the Antarctic is not well studied. ”

According to Coffin, the research team chose to focus their study on the Antarctic, and specifically the Ross Sea, due to the large amount of methane found in deep ice formations under the water. As global temperatures rise, more ice formations containing high amounts of methane will melt, releasing the gas. Methane, also known as CH4, is known to be 25-times more heat absorbent than carbon dioxide (CO2) and is the second most principal greenhouse gas after CO2, creating a big issue for climate change.

“Focusing on how methane is able to move from the deep sediment gas hydrates ‘ice-like’ formations to shallow water columns and, subsequently the atmosphere is imperative understanding Earth carbon cycling and the relation to warming and cooling periods,” Coffin said.

Collaborators include Dr. Wade Jeffery, University of West Florida; Dr. Nathan Bangs, University of Texas; Dr. Brandi Reese of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, and Dr. Ingo Pecher, TAMU-CC Professor of Coastal and Marine System Science. The team also includes nine TAMU-CC graduate researchers including Hao Yu., Natalia Alekseeva, and Derry Xu, doctoral candidates pursuing degrees in the Coastal and Marine System Sciences and Hannah Organ and Michael Marks, pursuing MS degrees in Chemistry. 

“The data we’ll collect will provide a thorough baseline of the CH4 hydrate buried in the Ross Sea and its impact on biochemical cycles in this region,” Yu said. “It will broaden and deepen our current understanding of the impact of human activities on natural processes and global climate change.”

Researchers will spend their time in the Ross Sea during two separate expeditions, once in winter 2022-2023, and again in spring 2024. Their 24-hour days in the field will consist of conducting seismic profiling, piston coring, and ice drilling for collecting samples to provide geochemical data. The fieldwork will be continued at other study locations to build a sufficient Earth database.

“From the research, we will have a better overview of the Earth's carbon and warming cycle, and this will provide a better capability to understand how much human activity has increased greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures,” Coffin said.

Results from the study will not only be shared with higher education audiences in published peer-reviewed papers and conferences but will also be able to be accessed through many non-scientific based sites such as blogs, websites, and education outreach activities.

“The information gained will hopefully shed light on what steps need to be taken to preserve our planet for future generations,” Coffin said.