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Will Amelia Earhart Help Unlock Secrets of Climate Change

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A search for Amelia Earhart may wind up contributing to science's understanding of global climate change, according to plans announced June 3rd by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).

TIGHAR is planning a search of the coral reef face at Nikumaroro Atoll in the central Pacific, where its researchers think Earhart's airplane wound up after it went missing on July 2, 1937. The mystery of Earhart's disappearance has intrigued the public ever since, and has been the subject of research by TIGHAR for the last quarter-century. The project now being planned in cooperation with the University of Hawai'i involves deploying two three-person Pisces submersibles to search the deep water of the reef face.

What's new in TIGHAR's June 3rd announcement is the expansion of the submarine mission to gather data to help scientists unravel some of the causes and effects of global climate change. As TIGHAR Executive Director and Expedition Leader Ric Gillespie puts it, "We have broadened the scope of this expedition because the craggy underwater mountainside that may hold the wreckage of the Earhart plane also holds the answers to questions far more important than what happened to Amelia. The unexplored depths off Nikumaroro contain information crucial to understanding climate change, the most serious environmental challenge of our time."

Ocean scientists from Conservation International and Boston University have joined the TIGHAR/University of Hawai'i team to reformulate the exploration mission; it will now focus both on finding Earhart's plane and on collecting data on deepwater coral growth. Nikumaroro lies in the heart of the area where El Niño events are born. These abnormally warm pools of Pacific Ocean water have a large but poorly understood impact on global weather. Their effect on coral reefs is a key indicator of how these events relate to climate change, but it is difficult to determine which changes to corals are attributable to abnormal warming and which are the result of human activity. This makes Nikumaroro and its neighboring islands - all part of the Republic of Kiribati's Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) - tremendously important for studies of climate change.

As explained by Dr. Les Kaufman, Professor of Biology at Boston University, "The key is that these corals have most likely been undisturbed. We think that there has not been any deep seamount fishing on these atolls, so there has been little or no human physical disturbance. Also, the corals are far removed from any local human impact making the climate change signal clear and much more easily understood."

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This craggy undersea mountain slope -- underlying Nikumaroro Atoll (right) may hold both Amelia Earhart's airplane and clues to the causes and effects of global climate change.

The Pisces subs of the University's Hawai'i Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL) have a maximum operational depth of two thousand meters. The corals that live at depths of 400 to 500 meters include Gold Coral (species Gerardia), which are among the oldest living organisms on the planet. One colony in Hawai'ian waters has been dated as 2,740 years old and others may be as old as 5,000 years. These ancient corals can reveal an historical record of previous changes in the earth's climate and provide perspective on the current climatic shift.

If TIGHAR and its partners are successful in raising the funds for the expedition - budgeted at just under US$1.4 million, it is scheduled for September-October of this year. According to Kaufman, "compared to a Mars rover this is incredibly cheap, yet entails venturing into an environment that is nearly as poorly known."

Commenting on the project, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Sylvia Earle agreed with Kaufman. "Investment in space exploration has paid off handsomely," she said. "Neglect of ocean exploration is costing us dearly. Deploying the Pisces subs to explore the deep reefs of the Phoenix Islands will yield insights about the nature of this part of the Solar system that are as vital as knowing about the depths of Jupiter's moon, Europa. All things considered, the need to understand Earth's ocean is a lot more urgent and a whole lot less costly."

Gillespie stresses that the search for Earhart's plane will not be neglected. "The beauty of this convergence of interests," he says, "is that the ocean scientists need to look at the same reef, at the same depth, in the same detail that we do. We have the opportunity both to solve the Earhart mystery and to help solve the mysteries of climate change." Earle adds: "Never before has there been such a convergence of the need to know with effective tools poised ready to provide answers concerning the nature of deepwater ecosystems in this pristine part of the planet."

More information on the expedition can be found on TIGHAR's worldwide web site, www.tighar.org.