A team of scientists from the United States and Russia plans to set up the first manned research station aboard an Antarctic ice floe by mid-February, organizers say.
The 20 researchers -- 10 from each country -- hope to take the first detailed look at the water, ice and air of the forbidding and seldom-studied western Weddell Sea, about 1,300 miles south of Tierra del Fuego, the tip of South America.
Unlike most of coastal Antarctica, where the ice shelf retreats to near the coastline in the summer, the western Weddell is a jigsaw puzzle of ice floes 12 months a year.
"What we want to know, then, is what's so different in the western Weddell that lets the ice stay there all year around?" said Dr. Arnold Gordon of Columbia University.
He said one aim is to search for evidence that the numbing cold of the region's waters might soak up some of the additional heat in the atmosphere from global warming.
Researchers plan to set up "Ice Station Weddell," a collection of two dozen sled-mounted huts and an icy airstrip, on top of a floe about the size of Druid Hill Park in late January or early February.
The first shipment of equipment for the $9 million expedition -- including two helicopters, generators and scientific instruments -- is to leave New York for Uruguay today.
On Jan. 22, scientists from Columbia University and seven other American institutions will sail from Uruguay with their Russian counterparts aboard the icebreaking research ship Akademik Federov.
While manned research stations have been established on floating ice in the north polar region, no similar effort has been made off Antarctica, a spokesman for Columbia said.
"There are places in the world that we don't know anything about yet, places that are important," said Dr. Gordon, an oceanographer and climate specialist who has studied Antarctic weather for 26 years.
Led by a Russian scientist, Valery Lukin, researchers will measure the exchange of heat and gases among the air, ice and ocean; the movement of sea ice; and the circulation of heat and salt in the seawater.
The waters around Antarctica, where surface waters are about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than those in the Arctic, have a major impact on global climate, Dr. Gordon said.
Dr. Gordon suspects that the Antarctic seas might act as a "heat sink," transferring extra heat from the atmosphere to the waters of the deep oceans.
Researchers are expected to occupy the ice station for about five months and travel about 400 miles north before they are evacuated from the shrinking floe by helicopter. There is a danger that the floe could break up early. Scientists expect to have about two days' warning, enough time to relocate.
While it will be summer and fall in Antarctica, temperatures will dip well below zero at night, Dr. Gordon said, with winds of up to 40 mph.