Science at the South Pole

/ Wednesday, 24 December 2014 / Published in Blog

The Committee on Science and Technology has jurisdiction over the budgets of most science-related agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA. One of the NSF’s responsibilities is the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP).

The USAP consists of many scientific endeavors that require the conditions found only in the Antarctic. Because the USAP is a sizable portion of the NSF’s budget, the Science Committee occasionally organizes a Congressional Delegation, or Codel, to Antarctica so that Committee members can understand how the money it authorizes is spent. In past years, the Committee would organize a trip every one or two years. However, the Committee hadn’t organized a trip for the past six years.

This year, Chairman Lamar Smith decided it was time to move forward with an Antarctica Codel to consist of 10 Committee members. Since fewer than 10 Committee members were interested and able to attend, I and another Congressman not on the Committee were invited to fill the available slots and gladly accepted. The other members were Chairman Smith, David Schweikert, Todd Rokida, Chris Collins, and Mo Brooks, Darrell Issa, Donna Edwards, Suzanne Bonamici, and Eric Swalwell. Because of the proximity to the holiday season made flights hard to book, members left at different times and arrived over a 2-day period in Christchurch, New Zealand. Christchurch, which is undergoing rebuilding efforts following a devastating earthquake that took place 3 years ago, is the base camp of USAP operations.

Once all of the Codel members arrived, we met with the mayor of Christchurch, and members of the New Zealand government and academia involved in Antarctica programs. Afterward, we went to the USAP headquarters to receive the necessary cold weather gear and two USAP orange duffel bags.

The most prominent articles were heavy white boots, sometimes called “bots”, a bright red parka called “Big Red”, and cold weather overalls. Other items were also included, such as goggles, thermal clothing, socks, gloves, and caps. We tried on the gear, made sure we had everything, and then stuffed to it all into the two orange duffel bags before retiring for the night.

The following morning, we had an early breakfast and headed back to USAP headquarters to get ready for departure. We then went through Customs and boarded the aircraft that would fly us to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, the logistics hub for the USAP on the Continent of Antarctica. While waiting for the aircraft to embark, we got the news that weather conditions at McMurdo had deteriorated, making landing impossible. The day’s flight was scrubbed, and we waited for the weather to improve enough for us to make the flight.

Antarctica presents many logistical challenges, and quite a bit of planning went into organizing our trip. Nonetheless, unpredictable weather conditions should always be expected in Antarctica, and all planning should have contingencies and flexibility.

The next day, weather conditions weren’t very good but it was safe to fly so we began the 8-hour flight. The excitement rose as we began to see icebergs and distant snow-covered mountains about 2 hours from McMurdo Station. We eventually landed on a snow runway using skis that had been specially designed for this LC-130 military cargo plane for this purpose. The LC-130 that the USAP uses is the largest ski-equipped aircraft in the world.

Before landing, we all donned our cold weather gear to protect us from the blowing snow and frigid temperatures. After landing, we strode off the plane to meet Scott Borg – the USAP Science Director. We piled into the slow-moving bus called “Ivan the Terra Bus” to our first stop, the Long Duration Balloon Camp, where Long Durations Balloons (LBD) experiments are conducted.

LBDs are scientific experiments that take advantage of the unique atmospheric conditions around the South Pole. The winds circulate much like jet streams that will carry a high altitude balloon around the pole for days, making maybe two complete round trips. The balloons are lifted by helium and fly at about 120,000 feet with scientific instruments designed to conduct specific testing. The balloons are large, about 400 meters, and can lift a considerable payload until a signal gives the drop command and the instruments parachute back to earth to be recovered.

We visited three buildings in the Camp, each hosting one balloon launch experiment. The LDB program is a collaborative effort between NSF and NASA. All three of these LDB experiments were run by energetic teams of principle investigators and students who had proposed their work to the NASA scientific ballooning program more than 18 months prior and won competitive awards.

The first experiment was run by William Jones from Princeton University to measure gravity waves. It was scheduled to launch the following morning, weather permitting, and had instrumentation to measure gravity waves. The LDB is an ideal experiment because the instruments are above most of the atmosphere and are in the Antarctic, where there is little radio, microwave, pollution, or other conditions that may lower the quality of the data received.

Gravity waves, first hypothesized by general relativity theory, are ripples in space time that, if measured, will tell us about sections and epochs of the galaxy and universe that are not accessible by any other means. This will give us more information about the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that dominate our universe. I studied gravity waves in graduate school and was thrilled to see this experiment and am anxious to hear about the results. The next building housed a team preparing a high-energy neutrino experiment conducted by Christian Miki of the University of Hawaii.

Getting high in the atmosphere is important for this experiment because neutrinos, whether produced by supernova events far from our sun or by the solar wind interacting with our atmosphere, will interact in the ice sheet and produce radio waves that can be detected by this experiment. So being high in the atmosphere means the detectors will see more of the ice sheet and thus pick-up more of the radio signals produced by neutrino interactions.

The last building housed a team preparing a gamma ray observation experiment conducted by Carolyn Kierans of UC Berkeley. Gamma rays are the most energetic form of electromagnetic radiation and will open up information about the evolution of matter in our universe that cannot be found anywhere else.

After finishing the LDB facility tour at 9pm, we went to the cafeteria for dinner. We were exhausted and ready for some sleep. The staff had prepared a residence hall that would be comparable to a college dorm, with two beds per room, each floor having a women’s, and a men’s restroom/ shower room. I was able to get WiFi to call my wife, Mary even though it was very late in California. In the Antarctic summer, December through February, the sun doesn’t set. So when I retired at midnight, it was broad daylight and I had to pull down the dark shades and velcro them to the windowsill to block out the sunlight.

We were scheduled to go to the South Pole the next day, but low visibility at the Pole prevented us from making the trip. So we went instead to the McMurdo Dry Valleys, where the weather was clear and ideal. We first visited the Lake Hoare research camp near the Canada Glacier to meet Dr. Jill Mikucki of University of Tennessee, who was conducting research at the base of a giant glacier on microbial life that thrives in the extreme conditions there. This team camps out at the testing site for most of the austral summer and seems to relish it.

Next, we flew by the “Blood Falls” – a sub-glacier falls that is quite red and very anomalous looking. Scientists are searching for an explanation for this phenomenon. We also flew by some incredible scenery full of mountain ridges, dry valleys, and glaciers, stopping at a site where rocks had been shaped by short-blowing wind over millions of years that had given them incredible shapes.

All this flying uses fuel, and we had to stop and fuel-up at Marble Point Air Facility. From there, we went to the point where seawater was breaking up the annual sea-ice that had formed last austral winter in front of the Ross Ice Shelf. It was there that we got to see an assortment of penguins (mostly Emperor penguins but a couple of Adelie penguins were nearby), who, if you walk toward them, will approach you and stop just short of their positions near the water.

Our last stop for the day before returning to McMurdo was the Shackleton Hut at the base of Mt. Erebus. Long ago, the explorer Ernest Shackleton used this as a base camp to explore Mt. Erebus. We took a peek at the provisions and living conditions that had not been disturbed since his 1907-1909 expedition, more than 100 years ago. Shackleton and his crew must have been pretty tough to live there under those conditions. The sight is also a sanctuary for Adelie Penguins, which we watched from a distance.

The following day, the South Pole weather had cleared, so we were able to make the 3-hour flight to the South Pole Station. We were dressed in the warmest of the issued clothes, but the cold still stung as we deplaned. It was 20 degrees below zero, with winds at about 20 mph. Most of the work at the Station is astronomy-based. We got to speak with Erik Beiser and Stephan Richter of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who are conducting the “Ice Cube” neutrino observatory. This is a 1-km cubic block of ice under the South Pole that has special detectors capable of detecting the elusive neutrinos.

The device has a computer screen graphic of real-time events, and we were able to see different types of high-energy events at the Ice Cube observatory as Dr. Beiser described them.Next, we met Dr. John Carlstrom of University of Chicago, who is conducting microwave background radiation (MBR) experiments at the South Pole. MBR is a remnant of the Big Bang and subsequent period of rapid inflation. This observatory is the most sensitive in the world and yields the finest resolution measurements. The results will help verify or disprove theories of the early universe. For example, this facility was able to prove that the universe is flat in 4-dimensional space time. Dr. Carlstrom showed me some astonishing analysis of the data that illustrates early resonances of the universe in support of the Inflationary Theory.

With weather closing in, we made a hasty departure back to McMurdo Station. That evening, we got a briefing on how the Air Force supplies logistical support to the USAP through a contract with the NSF. They do an amazing job. After the Air Force briefing ended about 9pm, it was still daylight so several of us decided to take a hike up Observation Hill, a small mountain outside of McMurdo Station. It was only about 755 feet above sea level, but the steep climb was on loose volcanic rock and the wind was biting. We made it to the top in about 20 minutes and got an incredible view of the Ross Ice Shelf, Mount Erebus, and the Dry Valleys. The visibility must have been 150 miles over an ice-covered landscape.

On the last morning, before our departure, we visited the science lab at McMurdo called the Crary Lab. There we met Dr. Anne Todgham of UC Davis who is conducting testing on how the cold-water fish in the McMurdo area under the Ross Ice Shelf are coping with ocean warming and ocean acidification. This will have application to Arctic fisheries and Pacific Coast agriculture facilities.

Dr. Todgham gave a very definitive answer to a question posed by Mr. Issa about how it was determined that the ocean’s water temperature under the Ross Ice Shelf had been stable for about 5 million years before the current increase in water temperature which is impacting the fish population. Her answer rested in the stability of the fossil records and genetic lines until the very recent rise in ocean temperature and acidity. We also spoke to Joe Levy of the University of Texas at Austin about the Dry Valley hydrology, Frank Rack of University of Nebraska about remotely-operated underwater vehicles for exploration, and Erin Pettit of the University of Alaska about glacial ice microstructure. We then boarded the aircraft for the 9-hour flight back to the USAP headquarters in Christchurch.

Our nation should be very proud of the scientific work being conducted in Antarctica. I was extremely honored to have the opportunity to see it firsthand. Many are concerned that other nations are gaining on us in scientific research and advancements, possibly putting our nation at risk. This is a legitimate concern, but when I see what the United States is doing in Antarctica, I feel confident in our continuing scientific and engineering leadership. The quantity and quality of science, paired with the logistical muscle we have in place to support our research, helps us advance our national interests. These capabilities have real world applications to our nation’s engineering and economic might and I, for one, am proud of the hard work that our scientists and engineers are carrying out and the results they are achieving. I intend to give the NSF and USAP my full support and encourage my colleagues to do the same. I also hope the American people continue to appreciate and support this and other federal Research and Development programs that benefit our nation and move our country forward.