Walsh School of Foreign Service

A Missive from Antarctica

As I mentioned last week, my duties as a member of the National Science Board, overseeing the National Science Foundation, took me to Antarctica this week.

We arrived on the western coast of Antarctica at McMurdo Station on Monday afternoon from Christchurch, New Zealand. We landed in a C-130 on an ice shelf off shore and drove about 45 minutes to the base. The weather was clear and warm – about 20°F. The station resembles a mining town, with unpaved streets and industrial-looking buildings.

Through a series of briefings I came to the conclusion that it was best to think of the station as a small city. It must be self-sufficient because of its remoteness. It generates its own electricity and manages a water treatment plant and a fire station. It imports all food and fuel. It operates large numbers of unusual vehicles, uniquely designed to move scientists and equipment to field sites. There are snow tractors, helicopters, fixed winged airplanes, pickup trucks, and vans. Every bit of the refuse of human activity is packed for shipment off the continent, back to the US. This is the start of the busy season, with about 900 people currently at the station. The ratio of staff to scientists seems to be about 3:1.

There are reminders everywhere of the age of explorers, which launched the study of the continent. Robert F. Scott’s original cabin is nearby, protected by a charitable trust out of New Zealand. A cross on a high hill nearby was placed to remember Ernest Shackleton. A small chapel has memorials to others who died while working in this environment. The current station is led by a set of people passionate about their work and obviously feeling the sense of adventure that guided the explorers of the late 1800’s. But now most are driven by the possibility of scientific discoveries that the continent may permit.It is the summer season, where the sun is up all 24 hours and moves around a tight circle. In fact, they say the next sunset will be in March 2017! Then a winter of all darkness lasts another six months.

Tuesday, we flew for three hours from McMurdo to the South Pole station at an altitude of about 9,000 feet in the interior of the continent. It was about -25°F when we landed. The station is a beautiful 8-year old facility. Nearby teams are doing ice core extraction to study climate and environmental changes over thousands of years. The method uses the fact that snow falls at the South Pole continuously, packs down and forms ice over time. Another important study uses a one-kilometer cube of sensors to capture the evidence of neutrinos, massless subatomic particles so small that they pass through the earth. There are astrophysics studies using a 10-meter telescope, using the pure atmosphere to peer into the heavens. The facility was supplied only by airplane until a few years ago. As we’re here, there is a convoy of tracked vehicles making their way from McMurdo towing fuel to the site. There were 150 students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty, and operations staff on site conducting the studies from universities all over the world.

We were treated to some South Pole humor: “Which way is North?” I was able to walk around the world…by walking around the South Pole marker. We took some pictures, one with me holding the Georgetown banner!

I find it all a lot to take in. The diversity of the ongoing science work is impressive. There are biologists studying the adaptive attributes of unusual species that populate the waters. There are glaciologists studying the movement and melting of ice onshore and offshore. There are physicists studying cosmic background radiation in an attempt to understand the big bang and inflation afterward. There are geologists studying evidence that at one time the continent was filled with lush forests and dinosaurs. But there are also mechanics trying to keep equipment operating in frigid environments. There are cooks and dishwashers. There are caterpillar operators moving snow. There are lab technicians, IT staff, air traffic controllers, fire fighters, and a health care staff.The whole continent is a unique environment. There are scores of countries that are part of a treaty to work together on the continent. There are sharing arrangements — the New Zealanders share with the US some wind-generated electricity. The US helps the Italians, and the Italians provide a flight to the US. A NASA weather balloon lands in a remote area, and the Chinese, Australians, and Americans cooperate to retrieve it. It’s a model of inter-nation cooperation that the world doesn’t commonly see. For that reason alone, it makes an American proud to see the active pushing of the frontiers of science.

Sarah Johnson and Angela Bai, my Georgetown colleagues who are working on an NSF research project, arrive on Thursday (after a day-long weather delay) to launch their fieldwork. I’ll get a sense of their research setup Thursday night. They’ll be here for a month; I leave Friday so we won’t overlap much. I’ll do one more report on Antarctica next Wednesday.