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Investigating the polar regions from the inside out

Researchers brave Antarctica’s wind, chill, to track climate change at the bottom of the world

Researchers brave Antarctica's wind, chill, to track climate change at the bottom of the world
By Garrett Downing and Mark D. Somerson

The Columbus Dispatch
15 January 2008
Columbus, Ohio, USA

Antarctica is home to some of the coldest, windiest places on Earth. When the sun disappears in the winter, temperatures dip to 76 below zero and the breezes blow in at 115 mph. Scientists and their equipment simply can't survive there.

That's why, during the waning summer months, a corps of Ohio State researcher is leading an international effort to install rugged gear in some of the most inhospitable environments anywhere.

Their work placing global-positioning systems and seismic sensors will allow scientists to monitor year-round the melting ice sheet that covers 98 percent of the continent.

"The data collected from these types of observations will tell us how the solid earth is interacting with the ice sheets," OSU research associate Eric Kendrick said in an e-mail from Antarctica this month.

Scientists say global warming is eating away at the West Antarctica Ice Sheet. The data, which already is coming in, will show how that contributes to changes in global sea level.

"Scientifically, people are wondering about the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet," said Peter West, a spokesman for the National Science Foundation, which in December awarded a $4.5 million dollar grant to create these stations.

The money goes to the Polar Earth Observing Network, or POLENET, which Ohio State's Terry Wilson directs. Ohio State received $2.2 million to lead the effort.

Wilson, a geologist, said although scientists have been studying Antarctica in earnest for about 50 years, little is known about the desolate area that covers 5.4 million square miles. The continent is littered with equipment that works only part of the year or has failed in the extreme conditions.

She said the new equipment is different.

"We have used super-insulated containers, more-solid solar panel frames, modified bolts and clamps," Wilson said. "I have had projects that use GPS since 1995. The technological advances we've made have all been built upon past work."

In all, there will be 51 sites, some permanent, some temporary. Seventeen sites have both seismic and GPS equipment- those sites make up what is called the "backbone network" that will remain in place even when the project ends. (The National Science Foundation grant should keep things running through at least 2012).

"We know they will work," Wilson said. "But we can't completely bomb-proof them for the extreme winter conditions."

Solar panels and wind generators build up power reserves in each station's bank of batteries during the short summer so researcher can collect data during the cold, always-dark winter, said Stephanie Konfal, an OSU graduate student currently in Antarctica.

OSU researchers working on this project have been in Antarctica since early December and will remain on the job until February, when winter starts.

The stations will monitor parts of West Antarctica that have not previously been studied or traveled, Wilson said. In all, West Antarctica covers 740,000 square miles.

"In the remote interior, there really hasn't been this kin d of data collected before," she said.

To get to the sites, researchers must travel by ski plane or helicopter.

"There is nothing around, except the aircraft that brought you there," Konfal said.

Each station includes about 2,100 pounds of equipment and takes about four hours to install, Konfal said. A number of stations are up and running, and sending data via satellite to an archive system in Boulder, Colorado.

During summer months, abut 1,200 people (support staff and researchers) are working at a central hub at McMurdo Station. With warmer weather and 24 hours of sunlight, summer is the most common time for research.

Still, researchers often have to work in subzero temperatures and incredible, bond-chilling winds.

"We are hoping to achieve all of our goals if the weather cooperates," Konfal said.

Wilson, who was last there in January 2007, said that's a big if.

"Right now, a really warm day at sea level is (32) degrees," she said. "The real thing is the wind chill. You can imagine it, the wind going across the ice for thousands of kilometers."

There are 28 member counties involved in POLENET projects. Ohio State has a group of researchers in Greeenland doing similar work.

The observation systems could help POLENET researchers predict how climate change and warming will affect these regions and the effect melting ice sheets might have on the rest of the world.

"The overarching goal is to understand how much ice mass has been lost in the past," Wilson said.

"And using this equipment is really great. It's really a breakthrough technologically for us to record data year-round."