The Antarctic Files: Part II

The final flight of the season left the South Pole on Friday, February 14. The departure of that plane officially marked the end of the summer season here. For winter-overs this is a big milestone in our year—there won’t be another plane arriving for over eight months. We, a group of 41 individuals, are now effectively stranded in the heart of Earth’s coldest, driest continent and the dark of winter is approaching. But much of the work over the past few months has been to prepare us for these conditions, ensuring that we have adequate resources and provisions for the task. This is when the real adventure begins!

Last Flight leaving South Pole 

Many of us, myself included, have been here since the beginning of November learning our jobs and performing our duties, living and working among approximately 150 people. My primary role is as a Research Associate providing technical support for science projects. Specifically, I am responsible for overseeing the operation of several experiments that examine upper atmospheric physics. We call it “space weather” because most of the activity in the magnetosphere and ionosphere is influenced by solar winds, or streams of fast-moving charged particles that come from the Sun. Fortunately our atmosphere protects us from these particles. I monitor the equipment and make sure everything is running smoothly, archive collected data, and troubleshoot any problems that may arise. Scientists use this data to learn more about the ionosphere and the magnetosphere. While most of this equipment is located in the lab on station, my responsibilities do require daily trips outside to small, remote buildings.

So why do countries send people to Antarctica to conduct scientific research? Much of it can only be done here. Discovering the topography of the continent hidden under the ice, estimating the quantity of ice-locked fresh water, studying how the amount of ice changes with time, and glacial flow behavior are all questions that I imagine a geologist would find interesting. Measuring gases trapped at different depths from ice core samples gives us a history of climate change on our planet. And turning our attention upward, scientists measure the ozone layer above us. Given that it is covered in ice, you might be surprised to learn that Antarctica has volcanic activity. In fact, Ross Island actually has one of the few volcanoes in the world with an exposed lava pool in its crater—Mount Erebus. With a principle concern in marine life, biologists would be interested in studying the life in and around Antarctica. Very few species of animals live here. Most notable are seals and penguins (polar bears are only in the Arctic up north), which stay on the outskirts of the continent. There are a few other bird species such as the skua and petrel. Early explorers were surprised to find the ocean waters in this region teaming with life and this discovery is still of interest to modern biologists. Where able, paleontologists have investigated the fossil records here to ascertain what conditions were like during prehistory and several species of dinosaurs have been discovered here.

The given examples are from fields of science that are represented at the two coastal stations, McMurdo and Palmer. But, due to certain conditions here, the South Pole has its forte in another scientific discipline—physics. We will get into that next time!

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