Antarctic research could change lives around the world


By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 5, 2012

MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica — Climate change research that the U.S. military is supporting in Antarctica will likely impact the lives of billions and might even affect servicemembers’ careers.

About 125 U.S. military personnel are on the ice this summer providing logistical support to scientists investigating subjects as diverse as astronomy, physics, biology, geology, oceanography and glaciology.

In terms of global impact, few fields of research are as important as efforts to understand climate change and what’s learned about the phenomenon in Antarctica will help policy makers determine U.S. energy and foreign policy for decades.

If pundits are right, and conflicts arise over resources made scarce by a warming earth, the research could have a bearing on future deployments.

National Science Foundation representative in Antarctica George Blaisdell said: “The vast majority of research that goes on down here is answering components of the questions: Is climate change happening? How is it happening and on what kind of timetable?”

Antarctica has a central role to play in the climate of the planet, said Chuck Kennicutt, president of the multi-national Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

“It is a very exciting time for research in the polar regions,” he said. “It is things people read about in newspapers every day.”

Ninety percent of the world’s fresh water is bound up in Antarctic ice sheets, Kennicutt said.

“The polar ice is the planet’s thermostat,” he said. “There is a lot of interest in trying to understand if the ice sheets are stable and whether they are increasing or decreasing in mass and how that will play out over the next century.”

One of the biggest research programs going on in Antarctica is a study of the Pine Island Glacier, which drains a major part of West Antarctica and is moving at 10 feet a day. Glaciers in other part of the world move a few inches per year, Blaisdell said.

Members of the 109th Airlift Wing have been flying long missions to the isolated glacier in support of the research, which has been slowed by poor weather this season, he said.

Scientists are drilling miles beneath the Antarctic ice sheets to obtain samples of ancient ice that they can examine to find out about past climate change, according to Jeff Severinghaus, 52, a professor from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, who has been helping collect ice core samples in West Antarctica this season.

“The ice down there is 62,000 years old,” he said. “A lot of snow falls each year there so the yearly layers at that depth are 2 cm thick and we can see climate events that happen each year. What we are hoping to learn from this ice core is how the natural system will respond in coming centuries to human caused global warming.”

Military personnel assigned to McMurdo Station are often eager to interact with the scientists and learn about their work.

1st Sgt. Dan Rogers, 47 of Pittsburgh, Pa., who works in an operations center helping to organize 109th Airlift Wing flights to move the scientists, gear and samples all over Antarctica, said science has always fascinated him.

“What I like about it are the discoveries that come into everyday life,” he said. “There is stuff that starts out with an experiment — maybe a military experiment — that goes into everyday life.”

Rogers isn’t convinced that humans are causing global warming but he’s in favor of more energy independence for the U.S.

There’s plenty of research happening in Antarctica that’s not directly related to climate change.

Servicemembers stationed at McMurdo Station, the main U.S. base in Antarctica can tour the Crary Laboratories — a $25 million, three-story facility where scientists can test live or time-sensitive samples instead of sending them back to the U.S.

They can watch nearby Mt. Erebus’ lava lake erupting on a video feed from a riot-proof camera installed on the volcano’s crater rim or pet Mawsoni fish, with anti-freeze blood, living in tanks in a ground floor laboratory.

NSF deputy director of polar programs Kelly Kenison Falkner, 51, of Arlington, Va., said the South Pole is an ideal location for astronomy since there is 1000 times less water vapor in the atmosphere there than at other places on earth. That gives astronomers looking through a 10-meter telescope a view of the stars that is second only to the orbiting Hubble Telescope, she said.

Physicists have placed sensors more than a mile below the ice to look for neutrinos -- tiny particles that could give them a glimpse of “dark matter” — a mysterious substance thought to make up 95 percent of the universe, she said.

Lane Patterson, a former sailor who served on the USS Worden in the 1980s, runs a greenhouse at the South Pole that NASA is using to test the ability to plants to make oxygen out of carbon dioxide exhaled by astronauts and recycle water and waste.

Inflatable greenhouses could be sent to the moon or Mars to help astronauts survive in conditions very like those experienced by personnel living and working in Antarctica, Patterson said.

The U.S. Antarctic Program was set up to establish a U.S. presence in Antarctica through a robust and wide-ranging research program, Blaisdell said.

During the Cold War Antarctic research was less important than maintaining a presence on the continent to counter Soviet maneuvering, he said.

Antarctica, one of the largest land masses in the world likely contains massive reserves of hydrocarbons and valuable minerals although, to date, their remoteness means it would not be economically viable to extract them, Kennicutt said.

These days, U.S. Antarctic research is justified on its own merits, Blaisdell said.

The U.S. will spend about $375 million on NSF’s Antarctic research program this season but the tough environment means most of the money goes to support costs. Only about $75 million is science grants, Blaisdell said.

Scientists who want to do work there must submit proposals to the NSF for approval. Projects are only approved if they can only be done in Antarctica and they must meet strict criteria to include benefiting as many people as possible, he said.

NSF compares research proposals to its resources such as aircraft, beds, tens, vehicles and internet connectivity before it decides what it can support. Some researchers only need transport to and from Antarctica while others need flights to remote camps, resupply and movement of samples such as ice cores, Blaisdell said.

“The military folks who support us have become, like a lot of other workers on the ice, really committed to the U.S. Antarctic Program,” he said. “They realize this is a valuable thing for the country and it doesn’t involve bullets or dead bodies.”