Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Geophysicists in Antarctica

The International Polar Year is a scientific program focused on the Arctic and Antarctic that runs through March of 2009. One of the projects is studying the Antarctic's remote Gamburtsev Mountains which are buried under several miles of ice. The American team's leader is Columbia University marine geophysicist Robin Bell.

The project has daunting-seeming logistical issues, from extreme cold to complete isolation. As Bell wrote for Scientific American:

To study these hidden mountains, we will work from two camps. The southern camp is almost 800 miles (1,285 kilometers) from McMurdo, the main U.S. station, more than the distance between New York City and Chicago—only there are no highways, rest areas or gas stations along the way, just miles and miles of ice. Our northern camp is 470 miles (755 kilometers) inland and is closer to the Australian and Chinese bases on the northern edge of the ice sheet. Where we're working, there will be no penguins and no tourists, just ice, scientists, engineers, pilots, medics, cooks and mountaineers.

For several years, we have been puzzling over the logistics. How can a multinational team (of more than 25 scientists and engineers with three aircraft) cram an expedition into the very short time that the weather is warm enough for us to work? "Warm enough" means the temperature is warmer than –58 degrees F (–50 degrees C).
Not only is it very very cold, but the elevation is high enough to cause physical problems. Adrienne Block, a graduate student working on the project blogged about it a few days ago:
Part of my jitteriness the last few days is undoubtedly rooted in the fact I’ll be going to the South Pole on Monday. According to our medical briefing, that means I’ll be perpetually short of breath, having trouble sleeping and going to the bathroom about every 20 minutes for 2 days…. The anticipation is almost too much to hold in! I have been to 10,000ft elevation before but that was after living at 6,500ft above sea level for 5 weeks… and that was in Utah. The transition from sea level here in McMurdo to 10,000ft is such a surprise to the system that everyone is prescribed a medication to help our bodies adjust to the lower oxygen levels. On top of that, we all have to fight off the adrenaline brought on by the fact we’re in Antarctica, at The South Pole, at 10,000ft—no offense to Utah, but it doesn’t compare! Just in case we don’t adjust to the elevation, everyone has been learning tasks outside their specialty. Hopefully, if someone gets sick, we’ll be able to keep the science moving forward, even if at a slower pace.
But the scientists aren't completely isolated from the rest of humanity. You can follow Robin Bell on Twitter or join the XTREME South Facebook group for the latest information about the team's progress.

You can also read the blogs of other women scientists currently working in the Antarctic:
  • Andrea Balbas, undergraduate in geology at CUNY, who is collecting data about seafloor sediments
  • Adrienne Block, a PhD student at Columbia University who is working on Bell's team
  • Beth Burton, geophysicist with the US Geologica Survey
  • Zoe Courville, a PhD in materials science who works as a research mechanical engineer at Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lap in New Hampshire
  • Saffia Hossainzadeh, undergraduate in physics at the University of Chicaco, who is studying the motion of ice streams
  • Jean Pennycook, high school science teacher and penguin researcher
More information
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