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NSF Polar Research Programs

A December's Journey to the South Pole

A December's Journey to the South Pole

- Contributed by Linda Turner

Early last year, LIGO director Barry Barish was appointed as a member of the National Science Board (NSB). The NSB is the governing board of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds LIGO. The Board is comprised of 24 part-time members, each appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate for a term of six years. Nominees are selected on the basis of their eminence in their fields of knowledge, such as engineering, medicine, social sciences, education, research management, agriculture, and public affairs. The NSB has dual responsibilities. First, it serves as an advisor to the President and Congress on national science policy; and, secondly, as the governing board of the NSF.

In his new capacity as an NSB board member, Barry had the opportunity this past December to travel to Antarctica to see first-hand the variety of programs under the umbrella of the NSF's Polar Research.

NSF Office of Polar Programs.

Antarctica is an isolated and vastly unknown continent to most people. The glacial cover of Antarctica is up to three miles deep and covers about 5.3 million square miles--roughly 97.6 percent of the continent. If the volume of ice were returned to the oceans, it would raise the global sea level about 200 feet. Antarctica's ice is 90 percent of the world's ice and 70 percent of all of the world's fresh water. This is also a land of extremes. It is the coldest continent with a mean annual temperature of minus 57 degrees Centigrade in the interior, with a bit warmer in the coastal areas. Some of the coasts of Antarctica are also the windiest places in the world, clocking sustained gusts of nearly 90 meters per second. Finally, the interior of Antarctica is, surprisingly, the world's largest desert, with precipitation (if it were melted) averaging under five centimeters of water a year.

Satellite View of Antarctica

Its remoteness, extreme weather, and ice topography would appear to make Antarctica the last place for research. However, these same extreme conditions provide a rich environment for discovery. Seeking to minimize intrusion and to keep the environment pristine, the U.S. Antarctica Program (USAP) supports only that research which can be done exclusively in Antarctica or done best from there. This specialized research comprises five program areas: aeronomy and astrophysics, biology and medicine, geology and geophysics, ocean and climate, and glaciology.

Venturing into this wilderness, Barry and his NSB peers left Christ Church, New Zealand, for the eight hour flight to McMurdo Station on Ross Island in Antarctica. Three hours into the flight, extreme weather at McMurdo forced the plane to return to New Zealand--nicknamed a "boomerang" flight--where they were delayed several more days before weather allowed a second flight to depart.

Barry Barish. The transport plane. McMurdo Station.

With zero humidity and temperatures at the South Pole far below the freezing level, special clothes and shoes were required. The shoes used a cushion of pumped-in air between the sole and the person's foot as insulation from the extremely cold surfaces. Bundled up and ready to see the vast variety of research underway, the group started at McMurdo Station, which is the main science and logistics base. The Antarctic Biology and Medicine program was conducting research that would provide an improved understanding of physiology, behavior, adaptations, and processes related to life forms and ecosystems in Antarctica. Projects involved all levels of organization from the molecular and cellular, to communities, ecosystems, and global processes. Investigators are seeking to understand how organisms, including humans, adapt and live in high-latitude environments and how ecosystems respond to global change. One such study involves penguins. Barry expressed his fascination with the "trapping" of the birds. Taken far in from the coastline, scientists drilled a hole for the penguins to use in entering the water. Because of their distance from the coastline, the penguins would return and exit through this man-made hole, allowing scientists to track and study them in their natural habitat without fencing them in.

Insulating clothing. The group bundled up.
Starfish. Penguins.

Another excursion took the NSB journeyers to the Dry Valleys, where they saw incredible sculpted structures, molded by ice. This is an area that provides rich dividends in the study of glacier formation. There is almost no snow fall here, and geology researchers are rewarded with meteorite imprints kept intact for thousands of years, undisturbed by the normal weather patterns experienced throughout the rest of the world. Finally, scientists are studying the water beneath the frozen lake, working to understand why there is a significant difference in the pH value.

The Dry Valleys.

Visiting the South Pole, located in the middle of Antarctica, the NSB group stood on a high plain, at an altitude of 10,000 feet, boasting a perfectly clear sky. The polar regions have been called Earth's window to outer space. But with the discovery of depletions in the ozone layer, scientists have found this window has "open" and "closed" seasons. For astronomers and astrophysicists, these favorable atmospheric conditions, along with the South Pole's unique location, allow use of this window to probe the structure of the Sun and the universe with unprecedented precision. Cosmology projects, such as the DASI experiment, benefit from these idyllic conditions.

Also located at the South Pole is the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, with a summer population of 150. The station provides the built-in infrastructure necessary to support South Pole research.

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The group at the station.

No trip would be complete without seeing a piece of exploration history. Barry and his colleagues stopped by the cabins of both Shackleton and Scott, who led the first expeditions to the South Pole in the early 20th Century. The cabins are a snapshot in time, almost everything preserved as when the original explorers lived there.

Outside the Scott cabin. Inside the Scott cabin.

Barry was thrilled to experience such an adventure--a region so isolated and so remote, yet so full of discovery.