Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Science in Antarctica

Going to a desert to learn about fish: science in Antarctica

America is one of 32 nations presently conducting research in Antarctica—and almost none of it has to do with penguins. For one thing, even with all the snow, there’s not much water in Antarctica: taken as a whole and measured just in terms of precipitation, it is the driest desert on earth.

Of course, unlike Lancaster in winter, what snow does fall usually stays—and stays and stays and stays. Current drilling projects are discovering ice that is a million years old, and perhaps even ten times that old. These cores can tell us what has been going on with the earth’s atmosphere in detailed and subtle ways, ways that may help us evaluate and understand differing models of global warming.

Physics and astronomy happen here too. At the South Pole, for example, astronomers are using the ice cap itself as a giant lens to search for neutrinos, those most elusive of subatomic particles. One scientist calls them “fiendishly difficult to detect,” but if they can be identified, they reveal essential things about the first moments of the universe. Using hot water, crews have drilled three thousand feet into the ice to insert highly sensitive detection rods, creating a grid that can pick out the tracks of the neutrinos as they pass through the core of the earth.

Things connect in surprising ways. Rovers intended for the surface of Mars are tested in Antarctica, while last night I went to a lecture by Dr. Ian Dalziel, a geologist. As he and his colleagues fine-tune their understanding of continental drift, he has discovered rocks that show that part of Antarctica and part of Texas were once joined together. Our continents may only move forward or backward at the same invisible rate as your fingernails growing, but given enough time, that slow and steady creep will rearrange the atlas like a child playing with a Rubik’s Cube.

Under the ice, strange creatures on the sea floor exist whose bodies are filled with natural kinds of anti-freeze. Seawater because of its salt content freezes at temperatures lower than regular water, which means that living creatures must find ways to survive in hyper-chilled environments. If we could understand this, we could treat and prevent frostbite, among other practical considerations.

Strict protocols are in place for all Antarctic research. I photographed the brittle stars shown below earlier this morning; their role as study subjects in the McMurdo lab is ending, so via holes in the ice, they will be put back in the ocean exactly where they came from. In the mountains, drip pans prevent petroleum from contaminating the rocks and ice when helicopters refuel, and in remote field camps, even the dishwater has to be accounted for. These starfish below have been very carefully (almost lovingly) looked after in the lab, and in a few short days will be back home just as good as new.

Of the governments sponsoring research, not all are motivated by altruism. Cynics note that by having a research base, a nation can continue to pursue territorial claims. Even if that is a consideration at the political level, here on the ground the fact is great work gets done, all year and every year. I hope to learn more about it myself, and to be able to tell the stories of the pilots and aircrews who help make it happen. Before I can visit any remote sites, first though I have to get my survival training certification.

For the next few days I will be building igloos and digging snow caves, as a participant in what is fondly called “Happy Camper School.” There won’t be any blog posts, and let’s hope that I make a good, snug snow cave, since whatever I construct, I have to test by spending the night in it.

1 comment:

  1. Most of the scientist are doing research at Antarctica. Even i have also did so many project at Antarctica. I have found history of Antarctica. Hope i will show out in my language as soon as possible.
    Tours of Antarctica