Last Austral Summer, I spent 3.5 months living at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica. Among my many jobs on station, one of the most rewarding was the work I did with the Askaryan Radio Array drill and deployment teams. During my time working with the ARA, I got to spend some good time with Scientist Terry Benson. Here’s his excellent slide deck going over the science he’s working on at the South Pole, including details of the ARA Drill Rig I helped construct and test. Specifically, I helped construct the water tank overflow gutter, wired up the emergency stop switches, troubleshoot the main pump system, maintained the hose bindings, and tended to the drill as it operated.
It’s truly a sad day for Antarctica. Because of the government furlough, science operations in Antarctica is being shut down as funds dry up, as a “result of the absence of appropriation and the Antideficiency Act.”, according to the official USAP.gov website.
Amidst all of the other shakeup and struggle operations in Antarctica have gone through in recent years, I’m sad to hear that another setback has fallen on operations on the ice. So much good science and engineering research is being done there, it’s a shame that the small fraction of the budget that is needed to support the USAP has been suspended. A breakdown of the actual cost of the program, from Change.org:
The total cost of the USAP program is approximately $350 million dollars. A value added amount of money which is small in terms of the $3.8 trillion dollar total budget that would be trivial not to have congress authorize a portion of it to allow international science to continue.
With any luck, the furlough will end soon, and funds will be made available again before too much of the continent has been emptied out. Effects of the shutdown, from Change.org:
The effects this shutdown will be the loss of continuity in projects that have been ongoing since the International Geophysical Year (IGY) some 50 years ago. Scientific data such as the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) which has been ongoing for 30 years will have a large data gap in at a crucial time in our understanding of climate change. A similar problem would be the abrupt end to 11 years of continuous data on the solar cycle that is used, for example, by the UC Boulder Lidar project. Since solar cycles are 11 years long, missing this last critical bit of data could jeopardize the multi-year investment. Also threatened is our understanding of rapidly changing ecosystems that is being generated by the study of Penguins in the Palmer Peninsula.
The full explanation on USAP.gov reads:
Planning and Implementation of Caretaker Status for U.S. Antarctic Program
October 8, 2013
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is responsible for managing and coordinating the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) on behalf of the nation. This includes providing support personnel and facilities and coordinating transportation and other logistics for scientific research. Due to the lapse in appropriation, funds for this support will be depleted on or about October 14, 2013.
Without additional funding, NSF has directed its Antarctic support contractor to begin planning and implementing caretaker status for research stations, ships and other assets. The agency is required to take this step as a result of the absence of appropriation and the Antideficiency Act.
Under caretaker status, the USAP will be staffed at a minimal level to ensure human safety and preserve government property, including the three primary research stations, ships and associated research facilities. All field and research activities not essential to human safety and preservation of property will be suspended.
As NSF moves to caretaker status, it will also develop the information needed to restore the 2013-14 austral summer research program to the maximum extent possible, once an appropriation materializes. It is important to note, however, that some activities cannot be restarted once seasonally dependent windows for research and operations have passed, the seasonal workforce is released, science activities are curtailed and operations are reduced.
NSF remains committed to protecting the safety and health of its deployed personnel and to its stewardship of the USAP under these challenging circumstances.
More coverage of this story:
- Thanks to Government Shutdown, It’s About to Get Really Lonely in Antarctica on Slate
- Continued Shutdown Would Spell The End Of U.S. Scientific Research In Antarctica This Year on Think Progress
- U.S. Antarctic research victim of shutdown; losses are irreplaceable on LA Times
- Shutdown Forces Antarctic Research Into ‘Caretaker Status’ on NPR
- Shutdown Cancels US Antarctic Research Program on Discovery
Among the many science experiments taking place at South Pole one of the more interesting field experiments is AGO – the Automatic Geophysical Observatories Network. While Research Scientist Dr. Bob Melville and his team were stationed here at the South Pole Station, I had the opportunuty to help build various electronics, which were subsequently installed at the AGO remote field sensor sites. It was a great experience working with them this year, and I’m certainly hoping to continue my involvement during future seasons on the ice.
Continued progress in understanding the Sun’s influence on the structure and dynamics of the Earth’s upper atmosphere depends upon increasing knowledge of the electrodynamics of the polar cap region and the key role that this region plays in coupling the solar wind with the Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere and thermosphere. Measurements that are central to understanding include the electric field convection pattern across the polar cap and knowledge of the response of the atmosphere to the many forms of high-latitude wave and particle energy inputs during both geomagnetically quiet and disturbed situations.
The U.S. AGO network, which consists of a suite of nearly identical instruments (optical and radio wave auroral imagers, magnetometers, and narrow and wide band radio receivers) at six locations on the polar plateau, actively studies the coupling of the solar wind to ionospheric and magnetospheric processes, emphasizing polar cap dynamics, substorm phenomena, and space weather.
Here at the south pole, we get lots of visitors – and many of them are extremely interesting. This past week I had the honor of meeting NASA Astronaut Scott E. Parazynski, MD. Dr. Parazynzki is now working as the Medical Director of the United States Antarctic Program. Having dinner with both Dr. Parazynzki as well as Dr. Sean Roden, former International Space Station Lead Flight Surgeon and now South Pole Chief MD was extremely interesting. Among other things, we discussed the various missions that Dr. Parazynzki and Dr. Roden had worked together on, as well as a few of the more interesting logistics for Antarctic medicine.
Although this happened at McMurdo and I didn’t get to see it personally, it’s still cool – a high altitude weather balloon launch in Antarctica.
BLAST-Pol is a balloon-borne submillimeter-wave telescope designed to study star formation in our galaxy. It was launched on its 2012 long-duration stratospheric balloon flight by the crew of NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility on December 26, 2012 from Willy Field near McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
Last week, amidst some interesting weather, blowing snow, and what looked like (to the untrained observer) real snow falling, I reported that we were actually getting snow at the South Pole. As it turns out, the precipitation we received here was actually “snow grains”, not real snow. To clear up a bit of the confusion, and fill my in on general weather phenomenon here, I asked our Meteorologist Phillip Marzette a few questions.
Over the last few days here at the south pole, I’ve noticed some snow-like precipitation. I hear it’s exceedingly rare to get actual snow here. Was that snow we got, or something else? How often does it actually snow here? What’s the main form of precipitation?
As far as precipitation at South Pole, they come in three forms; ice crystals, snow grains and snow. Ice crystals appear about 90% of the time and are the product of water vapor after it encounters very cold and dry air poleward. Snow is made up of six-sided dendrite branch crystals. These are rare at South Pole and occur with warmer temperatures. Snow grains (8-9% occurrence), like snow, occur in warmer temperatures but they are more opaque, graupel-like in structure. Snow grains are what you saw out there, Jeffrey and there hasn’t been any “snow” recorded so far this season.
So, if we’re in a desert here and there’s such low amounts of precipitation, why is the ground covered with snow? Why isn’t it just slick ice on the surface?
The snow on the ground has mainly to do with the continent drifting towards the polar regions over millions of years. During that time, accumulations here have topped out at 2 miles while places further into the continent are at 3 miles. The ANDRILL project here on the continent can tell you more about that than I can. Over time, the snow hasn’t had a chance to melt and refreeze into ice that we are accustomed to, so the ground is still soft to walk on at South Pole.
In addition to the light precipitation we’ve had lately, there’s also been a thick cloud cover, and it’s also been very warm – maybe around -10F. Do these have anything to do with each other?
As far as clouds bringing us warmer weather, that’s a two part answer. The first part being that clouds in general do a good job in trapping in longwave radiation, thereby keeping our temperatures up. The second part is a tad more complicated, but I’ll try to explain. At South Pole, the coldest air settles at the surface and the air is warmer above us. This condition is called an inversion. When cold air meets warmer air, conditions become calmer, while when warm air meets cold air, that’s when we get clouds. When we have low pressure air moves upward from the surface, while when we have high pressure air moves downward to the surface. During low pressure at Pole, the colder air at the surface meets the “warmer” air aloft and conditions are pretty good. During high pressure events, the warmer air goes down to the cold air and we get our clouds, precipitation and otherwise bad weather.
So far during my time here on the ice (Since November 13th), I’ve seen ice crystals drifting in the air, sundogs, thick haze, weird wave-like clouds, and driving winds. What other special weather phenomenon are you looking forward to seeing during the summer season? Anything really special we haven’t seen yet?
As far as anything else that pops up, we do have some Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds (the clouds that look like ocean waves, due to different layers of stability in the atmosphere) that show up from time to time. Other than that, it just learning more and more about what weather events occur normally at South Pole that I would not see anywhere else around the world.
The South Pole Cryogenics Laboratory, usually known as Cryo Barn, was originally established to service various telescopes and science experiments with cryogenic cooling liquids such as Liquid Helium and Liquid Nitrogen. However, in recent years, most new experiments which operate at cold temperatures have been of the “closed loop” variety – that is, they don’t vent or leak any of their coolant. Therefore, most of the new experiments don’t need the regular coolant refils that Cryo Barn was built to provide. Last week, I got to watch as the last Liquid Helium dewar was filled from the main tank, and then shipped off to the Bicep2 CMB Telescope. A few pics:
Cryogenics Technician Flint Hamblin prepares the main Liquid Helium holding tank for transfer to the smaller transport dewar.
Fill volume of the dewar is measured by weight, and here Flint is seen checking the dewar weight as it’s suspended from the ceiling.
Liquid Helium is at about 4 Kelvin, or -452.2 degrees Fahrenheit. During the fill, the valves and piping that handle the liquid helium get extremely cold. In fact, they get cold enough to condense out the gasses from the air, turning the air into liquid. In this picture, the wet drips seen coming off the exhaust nozzle are drips of liquid nitrogen and oxygen condensed out of the surrounding air. Basically liquid air. The small grey plume coming out of the tip of the nozzle is actually a small amount of liquid helium, instantly vaporizing. The small white crust seen at the tip of the nozzle is solid air.
The dewar is transported from Cryo to MAPO on a sled pulled by a snowmobile. Here’s Flint and Physicist Jon Kaufman on the snowmobile, as I ride on the sled with the dewar.
The final step of the process, hoisting the dewar up into MAPO, where it’s used to fill the Bicep2 CMB telescope.