US Antarctic Research Still on Thin Ice
Cargo is unloaded from an Australian Antarctic Division Airbus A319 at Pegasus Airfield on Sept. 8.
July 23, 2012 --
This week Google debuted a new set of panoramic images from the South Pole. Taken in partnership with on-site researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Polar Geospatial Center, these interactive views shed light on remote locations such as Ernest Shackleton’s early shelter and the Adélie penguin rookery. The images were captured using off-the-shelf equipment that included a digital SLR camera with a fisheye lens, said Alex Starns, a Google technical program manager for Street View whose work covers operations in Asia Pacific and Antarctica. Brad Harried, a researcher with the Polar Geospatial Center, took the latest photos. “Brad would often carry extra batteries in his pocket and use a chemical hand warmer to keep them from freezing,” Starns said. “It’s a little challenging to operate the camera wearing thick winter clothes and mittens.” Explore the frigid Antarctic landscape in this slide show of high-resolution images.
The South Pole Telescope building shown here contains an enormous scientific instrument that took more than 30 engineers and scientists to construct. “The South Pole Station is actually at a really high altitude,” Starns said. Located 1.7 miles above sea level, the telescope is used by a team of scientists seeking to answer crucial questions such as “How old is the universe?” Since the South Pole has such clear atmosphere, it’s an ideal location for observing the thermal radiation that fills our universe. Starns hopes that Street View users who interact with the new images from Antarctica will be excited to learn more about the continent. He also wants them to have a greater appreciation for the explorers of 100 years ago and modern researchers, he said. Particularly the challenges inherent in a place NASA scientists used to prepare the landers for conditions on Mars. ANALYSIS: 100 Years Ago Today: Scott Reaches South Pole
Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton survived what seemed like certain death. His first attempt to reach the South Pole in 1901 nearly killed him. In 1908 he returned, getting even closer to the South Pole. Although Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen got there first in 1911, Shackleton was still determined. His ship Endurance would get trapped in the ice, forcing the crew on an epic adventure to safety. New images show the entire interior of Shackleton’s 1908 hut at Cape Royds. “Having this immersive imagery of the supply depot they built really reinforces the sense of just how incredible that journey was,” Starns said. Reading materials remain on the beds, tossed aside as if their owners will be back momentarily. And yet the objects inside hut have stayed in place for more than a century. “His
was unique because they had some early photographic equipment on board,” Starns said of Shackleton. “In the hut you can still see some of the photographic chemicals that they used to develop their film.” Photographer Frank Hurley’s images from the Endurance expedition would become famous. HOWSTUFFWORKS: Can You Vacation in Antarctica?
A 50-foot-long wooden cabin was built in 1911 at Cape Evans on Ross Island to house several dozen men. British explorer Robert Falcon Scott used this building as a base for his Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole, but he and his team ultimately reached the pole weeks after Amundsen. Scott and the four other men in his party died in the frozen wilderness while attempting to return. A letter found with his body read, "Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman." Although the cabin has remained largely unchanged since Shackleton locked it up in 1917, scientists have to regularly keep it from being swallowed by ice and snow. "You look at the food and the equipment that they brought and imagine how isolating and how lonely it must have been down there," Starns said, adding that he couldn’t imagine spending years eating tea biscuits and gravy. "It’s amazing to me that not only did these men do this, but many of them volunteered for it." NEWS: Two Aussies Reach South Pole Unaided
Back in 2010, Google first unveiled Street View images taken from Half Moon Island on the northern edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. Visitors from cruise ships that stopped there helped take the panoramic photos at the time, Starns said. Instead of a human, the Street View icon turned into a little penguin. The Adélie penguins at a remote rookery on Cape Royds aren’t accustomed to humans taking their pictures, but they seem more focused on soaking up the summer sun. From here the waters of McMurdo Sound are visible. Adélie penguins use the sun to navigate from land to the sea, according to scientific data from the Polar Conservation Organization. Unlike the humans in Google’s shots, none of the penguins have blurred faces to protect their identities. “If we get any blurring requests from them, we’ll be sure to tend to them,” Starns joked. ANALYSIS: Paralyzed Athlete Sit-Skis to the South Pole
Flags from the nations that signed the Antarctic Treaty encircle the Ceremonial South Pole. In 1959 the original treaty among 12 nations included provisions stating that Antarctica would only be used for peaceful purposes and ensuring continued scientific research there. Since then, the list of signatories has grown to 50. Besides flags, the Ceremonial South Pole is marked by a pedestal with a reflective globe on top. In the background stands the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, an American scientific facility. When the Google panoramic images were shot on the polar plateau, the conditions weren’t just windy -- the temperature was negative 60 degrees F. The ice that the station is built on moves annually so the geographic South Pole location is in a different position every year, Starns said. "The ceremonial pole always stays in the same place." VIDEO: Frozen Planet: Journey to the South Pole
With government cash flowing again, the U.S. Antarctic research program is scrambling to reverse the science shutdown forced into place last week.
On Oct. 8, the National Science Foundation (NSF) ordered the three U.S. Antarctic bases drawn down to winter caretaker status, with minimal staff. The closure reverberated across the planet, hurting thousands of scientists and staffers heading to the frozen continent for the summer research season.
Now, returning NSF employees face a logistical nightmare — rewinding the shutdown and trying to save the Antarctic research season. Because of the mess, it will be several days before scientists learn the status of their stalled projects. But the tight window for Antarctic travel means some research projects can't be saved.
"It must be understood that due to seasonally dependent windows and logistic limitations, certain research and operations activities may be deferred," the U.S. Antarctic Program said today (Oct. 17) in a statement.
One such experiment is SPIDER, a high-altitude balloon that will search for gravity waves in cosmic microwave background radiation.
"There are three long-duration balloon flights, including our own, that will likely be scrubbed this year as a result of the dysfunction in Congress," William Jones, a cosmologist at Princeton University, told LiveScience. "We must set up a laboratory and build, integrate and test a spacecraft before the mid-December launch window; the time that has been lost is precious. [17 Weirdest Effects of the Government Shutdown]
"I fully appreciate the untenable situation that Congress has presented to the federal agencies, and I in no way find fault with the decisions that NSF has made to date with regard to the Antarctic operations. As far as I can tell, they all are making the best of an impossible situation," Jones added.
In anticipation of the shortened schedules, many Antarctic researchers spent the shutdown trimming their timetables. Ross Powell, chief scientist for the WISSARD project, said he and his colleagues planned several alternatives for the massive drilling effort, which will delve under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
"Once we have time-frame and understand what can get down to Antarctica (numbers of people and amounts of science cargo) and what logistics will be possible while we are down there, then we can select which scenario we can follow for our expedition this year," Powell, a geologist at Northern Illinois University, told LiveScience by email.
Operation IceBridge, which tracks yearly changes in the polar ice sheets, will likely go ahead, but with fewer flights. This was the first year the research mission planned to fly a P-3B plane out of Antarctica's McMurdo Station instead of taking off from Punta Arenas, Chile.
"At this point everyone is trying to assess the impact on the deployments and determine the best way forward," said IceBridge project scientist Michael Studinger. "We have more questions than answers but we should know more sometime next week, hopefully. Both NASA and NSF are committed to enable a shortened McMurdo deployment if possible."
Scientists who arrived by ship at Palmer Station last week woke to a welcome reprieve. They were scheduled to leave the island research base on the Antarctic Peninsula today (Oct. 17), along with most of the base's support staff.
"The sense of relief on station is palpable — members of the various science teams are excited to set up their laboratories and begin the meticulous business of sampling and data collection, while newly-arrived support personnel are eager to begin the long list of projects that lies ahead of them this summer," graduate student Jamie Collins of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass., wrote on his blog.
According to emails sent to scientists, Lockheed Martin, NSF's Antarctic support contractor, has been directed to start planning for full operations again. Lockheed's California cargo center, which ships scientific equipment, is also back online. Lockheed and NSF are now starting the lengthy process of recalling support staff who were sent home or never arrived in Antarctica. Among them are contractors who were stranded in Christchurch, New Zealand or stopped from boarding their flights in Los Angeles.
Email Becky Oskin or follow her @beckyoskin. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.
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