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Investigating the polar regions from the inside out

Scientists explore ice caps

Scientists explore ice caps
By Rachel Lictenfeld

The Lantern
15 January 2008
Columbus, Ohio, USA

Like most scientists heading up large projects, earth sciences professor, Terry Wilson has her share of problems: looking after her scientists, writing grant proposals, making sure research is done on time.

Unlike most researchers, she has to concern herself with the physical survival of her team, which is racing against months of unrelenting darkness to install sites that will monitor the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in a study that could prove integral to the understanding of the melting ice caps. So far the team has coped with everything from freezing temperatures to heavy gear and time constraints.

And then there was the plane crash.

"Everyone wants to talk about the plane crash," Wilson said, her voice barely concealing a note of exasperation. "I think the science is much more interesting."

International inquiry
The science begins with the first International Polar Year, a mass of expeditions conducting in 1882-1883 on two basic principles: that the poles could provide answers to some of the biggest questions in earth science and that the study of these poles is a massive undertaking that requires cooperation between nations and disciplines.

"The pole are like a canary in a coal mine," Wilson said. "They're a pretty accurate signal of what one can expect to happen with the rest of the world."

The fourth IPY, organized 125 years later by the International Council for Science, involved 60 nations and helps to provide funding for more than 200 projects.

Wilson's project, considered a "core project" by the IPY, is called POLENET, or The Polar Earth Observing Network. POLENET is an international consortium that will be planning GPS stations, much like the ones in cars and handheld devises and seismologic sensors along the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Four researchers from Ohio State are currently deployed in Antarctica as part of this season's 13-person installation team.

"Nobody doubts the ice (at the poles) is melting," said Wilson, "but the rate of change- how fast it's melting- is a hot topic of debate. Nobody knows if it will be in hundreds or thousands of years. By supplying two pieces to the puzzle, we can model exactly how much ice is lost."

Any land, including Ohio, that was covered with ice in the past has been squished under the weight of immense glaciers. When the weight is removed, the land starts to pop up- think of what happens if one presses a thumb against a foam stress ball, then removed it. The GPS stations being planted by POLENET will measure the rate of this rebounding, and the seismologic sensors- the same kind that helped scientists learn that the earth has a solid inner core and a liquid outer core- will provide clues about the mechanical properties of the earth.

GPS has been used for this kind of scientific research in Antarctica since 1995, when the technology became accurate enough to measure very small motions. Although most people use their GPS to get directions, they can deal with the instrument being inaccurate by a few feet. POLENET uses five times more satellites than are used by the average consumer to get an extremely accurate reading of the position of the land surface, which is moving by half an inch a year or less.

A rough start
While most of OSU was on winter break, POLENET researchers climbed aboard a hulking c-17 military aircraft heading to McMurdo Station, the largest community in Antarctica. "They are all military planes. No commercial flights to Antarctica!" said Stephanie Konfal, a graduate student in geological sciences, in her blog chronicling the expedition.

Soon they used an old ski-equipped DC-3 to help them reach destinations far from the safety of the base, braving winds and temperatures that would hit 32 degrees Fahrenheit on the best of days. The installations were going well, despite bouts of inclement weather, when a failed takeoff destroyed the plane. Wilson explains the crash: "The snow in Antarctica is hard and flat, but not even. Just like in the desert, you get rough ground and snow dunes. The plane was trying to get some speed, bounced on a couple dunes, and just as it was about to get into the air a dune caught it in the wrong way. The plane crashed sideways and the skis were ripped off."

No one was hurt in the accident, and team members on board- including OSU senior research associate Eric Kendrick- used their iridium satellite phones to call for help. They were stuck in the remote area for more than 17 hours, relying on their survival packs to shelter them from the cold.

"I always wanted to make the New York Times, but not this way," said Mike Willis, a postdoctoral researcher in geological science at OSU, of the publicity that followed the crash. IN addition to media attention, OSU president Gordon Gee expressed in a statement his relief that the team survived the crash without injury.

Yet being away from home and the trials of research did not cast a shadow on the researchers' holidays. "We actually had a great Christmas here (at the base)," said Konfal in a podcast. "We had a Christmas party... and a lot of activities."

Fighting to finish
Now the team is racing to complete the rest of the installations before the end of February, when summer ends in Antarctica. So far about half of the work planned for this summer is done with eight of the 17 sites completed.

But with their best plane out of commission, the POLENET researchers have to rely on much smaller aircraft and the dropping of 'fuel caches' - fuel dropped form a larger plane on a parachute to refuel in a smaller plane- to travel the long distances needed to complete their work. Researchers will continue to carry 75-pound car batteries and GPS antennas through the cold to the installation sites.

Once installed, the GPS and seismologic stations will be solar powered in the summer. During the winter months of total darkness, stations will be powered by the car batteries. The GPS units will transmit their data via a satellite modem, and all the data will be accessible to the public.

Wilson explains that the most difficult aspect of the project is logistics and the "hurry up and wait" phenomenon, where researchers work almost around the clock and then, because of various factors, find themselves stalled for days. She said she expects a half-dozen sites to be installed in the next couple of weeks.

POLENET has funding from the National Science Foundation to collect data from these sites for the next four years, and hopes to extend that grant to include permanent monitoring of the ice. Wilson said the data might help the public recognize the importance of the polar regions.

"People in Ohio- and the rest of the world- need to know that the poles matter to them," she said.