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Antarctica Adventure

Published: 01-09-2013
Source: JILA Scientific Communications

On a balmy (-30 °F) summer day in late November of 2012, Carl Lineberger stands on 9000 feet of ice at the South Pole. The South Pole visit was part of a five-day fact-finding trip to Antarctica by three members of the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation and provides policy advice to the President and Congress. Credit: Scott Borg, NSF.

Adelie penguin rookery near Shackleton’s hut on Cape Royds, Ross Island, Antarctica.  Credit: Carl Lineberger.

Carl Lineberger joined fellow National Science Board members France Cordova (Chair of the Board, Smithsonian Institution) and Arnold Stancell (Vice President, Mobil Oil, ret.) on a whirlwind fact-finding tour of Antarctica November 26–30, 2012. The trio visited science and engineering facilities at the McMurdo and South Pole Stations, as well as field research sites in the Dry Valleys and historic huts on Ross Island.

The scientists were also were given an in-depth look at logistical support facilities at McMurdo and South Pole Stations, including base operations, water and power plants, weather, aircraft, and computing. Their charge was to identify ways for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to enhance scientific research in Antarctica by increasing the effectiveness of logistical support while lowering its costs.

NSF is the U.S. custodian of the 1961 Antarctic treaty that provides that Antarctica shall only be used for peaceful purposes and prohibits the establishment of military bases and weapons testing. The original treaty was signed by Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States as a direct result of a successful scientific collaboration in Antarctica during the 1957–1958 International Geophysical Year. The treaty has subsequently been signed by 28 other nations. Since the treaty was signed, the United States has enforced its terms and provided logistical support for a majority of the research conducted in Antarctica.

Logistical support for Antarctic research and protection of the continent’s fragile environment are major U.S. commitments. “Antarctica is roughly the size of North America and is 99% covered in ice,” Lineberger says. “It’s the only place on Earth where there is no native human habitation. It’s a big job figuring out how to keep this environment pristine and ensure that there is no military or mineral exploitation of the continent.”

Lineberger notes that even in the pitch dark and bitterly cold winter (when temperatures fall as low as -129 °F), skeleton crews man the McMurdo and South Pole stations, which are regularly subjected to gale force winds that scream across the continent at top speeds of nearly 200 mph. In this rugged climate, there is only a single landing field for wheeled aircraft — at McMurdo Station. Summer visits to other parts of the continent, such as the South Pole or the Dry Valleys, require aircraft with skis or helicopters flown by pilots trained to assess whether ice conditions allow for safe landings.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the harsh conditions, research is flourishing in Antarctica. “The biology is very interesting because Antarctica was once part of the ancient continent of Gondwana,” Lineberger says. “Species that were once common are now evolving separately in Africa, South America, Central Europe, the Arabian peninsula, India, Australia, and Antarctica.” Lineberger added that conditions in Antarctica also offer excellent “seeing” for astronomers.

For Lineberger, one of the most fascinating regions was the Dry Valleys. These erosion-carved valleys originally sloped down to the sea in Gondwana. However, the breakup of Gondwana literally turned the valleys upside down, forming a precipitation shield that cut off rain and snow. Because the valleys receive almost no water, they’ve been preserved as they were 140 million years ago.

Current research in this region includes observations of penguin rookeries and studies of the internal structure and movement of glaciers, which flow like rivers through the valleys. The glacier study is a crucial for determining possible changes in the amount of frozen water in Antarctica. The continent’s ice pack comprises 90% of the ice found on land, or grounded ice. The melting of grounded ice makes major contributions to sea level rise in global warming scenarios. 

The same day they visited research sites in the Dry Valleys, Lineberger and his colleagues were able to see historic huts, including the Shackleton hut built by explorer Ernest Shackleton and his expedition in 1908. Shackleton’s crew reached the South Magnetic Pole and came within a hundred miles of reaching the Geographic South Pole. The hut they built was subsequently used by expeditions in 1911–1912 and in 1915–1916.

In addition to an overview of early Antarctic explorations, Lineberger was able to spend a day learning about the scientific research and operations support facilities at the McMurdo station. After gathering important information about the cost and complexity of logistical support for Antarctic missions, he and his colleagues headed back to Christchurch, New Zealand and, from there, back home. The consensus was they’d learned a tremendous amount about Antarctic research and logistical support over five very intense and busy days. — Julie Phillips