When Jessica Trout-Haney was invited to participate in a scientific study in Antarctica she was willing and excited.
The Dartmouth College Ph.D. candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology had already spent multiple field seasons in Greenland sampling bacteria in remote lakes. She knew how to handle the extreme weather and biting cold. She figured Antarctica would be another opportunity to explore the world’s unique landscapes.
What she did not expect was the logistical tangle of traveling to and conducting research at the bottom of the world.
“I thought I understood the travel logistics from working in Greenland,” Trout-Haney said. “It’s remote and can be dangerous. The experience makes you realize there’s a reason many people don’t work there. But Antarctica was the whole process intensified.”
Although the Upper Valley is on the other side of the Earth, the connections of area scientists to Antarctica are numerous and varied, from designing airplane runways on ice sheets to recording radio waves emitted by the southern lights.
Each year, students, researchers, engineers and people of all trades gather on a small island surrounded by ice rather than water in the Ross Sea of Antarctica. Together they live and work in support of science in a climate that did not evolve to support human life.
And yet with engineering, ingenuity and a constant concern to contain human impact, a modest, modern town exists. There’s a water treatment plant, recycling and trash services, library, medical clinic, two bars and a cafeteria that is open 24 hours a day during the summer months.
Most people going from the U.S.down to the coldest continent fly from New Zealand to McMurdo Station or “Mac Town,” a U.S. Antarctic research facility, and the largest of three permanently inhabited communities managed by the U.S. Antarctic Program, a branch of the National Science Foundation.
All of Antarctica is protected and conserved for scientific research or other peaceful purposes, according to the Antarctic Treaty ratified in 1961.
To support the scientists who come to Antarctica for its unique climates, landscapes and physical features, many teams of engineers and experts in the science of snow, geographic information systems and ground penetrating radar must provide the proper infrastructure, said Janet Hardy, the Antarctic Program Manager for the Engineering for Polar Operations, Logistics and Research (EPOLAR) program at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) in Hanover.
“Our EPOLAR program at CRREL is really a very small, but significant, part of the United States Antarctic Program,” Hardy said in an email. “Our team is focused on helping the NSF gain efficiencies in their operations and logistics which support the scientific research by providing solutions to some of their challenges in operating in the Antarctic environment.”
EPOLAR employees have designed and built ice and snow runways, rapidly deployable buildings and radar systems to detect dangerous cracks in the ice, according to the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center website.
CRREL researchers developed technologies to move fuel and cargo from McMurdo Station to South Pole Station, a 1,050-mile drive over sea ice and ice-covered land, Hardy said. Despite the increased length of time in travel, it takes one-third of the fuel consumption and less than 1 percent of the emissions to drive supplies rather than fly them.
And that means cost savings, as well, Hardy said.
“When you consider that a gallon of fuel costs about $30 by the time it’s reached the South Pole, it adds up quickly,” she said.
Innovations in logistics and infrastructure mean scientists like Ross Virginia and his colleagues can focus solely on their work, he said.
Virginia is a professor of Earth Sciences at Dartmouth and has spent 19 seasons in Antarctica. His project in the McMurdo Dry Valleys has been ongoing since 1989.
“Our early challenges were getting there with the stuff you need to survive,” Virginia said. “The next priority is the stuff you need for science. Because the projects are well-funded and we have significant logistics support, now our facilities are quite impressive.”
Ruth Heindel is a graduate student of Virginia’s and has spent five seasons in the Dry Valleys collecting samples for the long-term project as well as her own research.
“It was surprising to me and others that the infrastructure in the Dry Valleys is great,” Heindel said.
Easy access to Internet, electricity and cooking facilities even in remote sites means that the focus can be on science rather than camp life, she said.
“And we need to stay focused,” Heindel said.
That’s because it is expensive to get there, the permits are hard to obtain and the responsibility of scientists is high, Trout-Haney said.
“The reason we’re there — the whole point — is research,” she said. “But we also have to preserve this one pristine place. And that means making the most of every sample.”
At home, you can do whatever you want to your land, but these landscapes haven’t been touched before by humans, Trout-Haney said. But it’s challenging to limit your impact because you want to maximize what you can learn.
The project that brought Virginia, Heindel and Trout-Haney to Antarctica looks at the entire ecosystem and climate of the Dry Valleys region. Along with more than 30 scientists from other universities, the group has gathered information on the glaciers, lakes, streams and soils, Virginia said.
Because the Dry Valleys is unique in its location, climate, water cycling, biodiversity and carbon cycling it is the perfect spot for understanding “life at the limits of life,” said Virginia, who chose Antarctica for his research because it is the only place on earth with the characteristics he needed for his study.
Virginia looks specifically at the soils, he said. The lack of biodiversity underground in the Dry Valleys means each interaction between species, nutrient cycling or even moisture content can be tracked with a lower risk of misinterpreting the cause of the changes.
“What we can learn about this very simple ecosystem function, we can then adapt and apply to other ecosystems, microcosms and climates,” he said.
One element of the study that has increased in importance and focus over the last 20 years is climate change, Virginia said.
“Climate change is more directly part of the project now,” he said. “It’s more a part of everything, really.”
Earlier in the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) project, Virginia and his colleagues found evidence that the Dry Valleys climate had changed throughout history and were able to explain the current physical condition of the area.
“But, over the last 20 years it’s been changing before our eyes,” Virginia said. “So now we’re trying to predict where it’s headed. It’s the pristine places like [the Dry Valleys] that will be more susceptible to change in terms of biodiversity, habitat and the impact of humans.”
Professor James LaBelle of the physics department at Dartmouth looks at the sky rather than the soil, but chose Antarctica for a similar reason; it’s one of the only places he can conduct his study.
The lack of human impact in Antarctica makes it an ideal location for observing radio waves.
LaBelle studies the northern and southern lights by recording the radio waves emitted from the lights. Specifically, he is interested in the higher frequency waves in the same spectrum as AM radio. By installing his equipment in Antarctica, LaBelle can practically guarantee there will be no frequency interference from radio stations.
LaBelle and his graduate students are able to monitor their antennae from Hanover, and so need to visit Antarctica only every couple of years to make necessary changes or dig the equipment out of the snow, he said.
When LaBelle does visit Antarctica, he flies to the South Pole and travels from there to his test sites.
Despite the challenges of living and working in Antarctica, there is a high demand for permits and the opportunity to study on the least hospitable continent on earth, LaBelle said.
“So, we are grateful we can do it at all,” he said.
Science in Antarctica covers everything from the responsibility of making sure everyone is safe and has the resources they need, to taking a moment to appreciate the stark beauty of the frozen desert landscape.
“It’s really striking at first” being in such a remote and harsh climate, Trout-Haney said. “But then you remember how lucky you are to be there, and you get to work.”
Stephanie Reighart spent much of last winter working in Antarctica.
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