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Polar Opposites: LSU Takes on Antarctica

It would be difficult by even the most imaginative standards to find a climate more distinctly different from our own than that of Antarctica. During the summer, temperatures on the continent plateau rarely reach freezing – bone chilling by Louisiana standards. But, as alien as it may seem, LSU enjoys an interesting give-and-take relationship with Antarctica that many people do not know about. On November 15-17, Antarctica will come to LSU in the form of “POLAR-PALOOZA: Stories from a Changing Planet,” an education and outreach project featuring the people who know the poles best – ice researchers, biologists, oceanographers, climate scientists, and Arctic residents. But before then, several LSU scientists will head into this extreme environment to put their work – and LSU – on the map.

A Different Kind of Deep South

In October, these researchers will leave the humid embrace of muggy Baton Rouge and head “down under” for the field trip of a lifetime. After a brief stop in New Zealand, they will be flown to Ross Island, Antarctica, where their final destination is McMurdo Station, the largest scientific community on the continent – and the last stop south for supply ships. During the Antarctic summer – which begins in October – this base becomes a bustling city capable of housing more than 1,200 residents at once. And while it is certainly not the Ritz, accommodations at McMurdo are not exactly spartan. There is a health club, ample skiing and snow sports, souvenir shops, and three bars available to the community – to say nothing of the view.     

“The scenery alone is really spectacular,” said Greg Guzik, professor of physics and astronomy at LSU and project leader for ATIC, the Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter Scientific Balloon Experiment that uses the Ross ice shelf as its base during the Antarctic summer.

“Right across the bay from McMurdo is the Transatlantic Mountain Range. If you turn around, you’ll see Mt. Erebus – an active volcano – with smoke billowing out of its peak, and suddenly you’ll realize that you’re actually standing on the Ross ice shelf, which is all that separates you from the thousands of meters of ocean below.”

The Big Chill

But don’t be fooled by the weekly hamburger nights, bingo games, and picturesque landscape – Antarctica boasts an unfriendly environment that can be dangerous without significant preparation.

“You get used to the temperature surprisingly quickly,” said Brent Christner, an LSU biology professor who studies microbes frozen for hundreds of thousands of years in glacial ice. “The National Science Foundation, which funds all of our research, gives us state-of-the-art cold weather gear. The Backpacker on Jefferson Highway also helped us out tremendously.”

“In fact,” Guzik added, “During the peak of summer when temperatures actually do climb above freezing, it wreaks havoc with the road systems, which are made exclusively from ice and snow. So we actually prefer the temperatures stay as cold as possible.”

Another oddity these researchers have to adapt to is the 24 hours of full sunlight that Antarctica experiences each day during the summer.

“It’s great at first, because you just feel invincible … it seems like you’ll never get tired,” said Christner. “And then, always, you crash.”

A full day of sunlight presents other unique issues besides sleep deprivation.

“Because of the ozone hole there, you get a lot of direct UV rays, so you can get badly burned before you know it,” said Guzik. “Once, I got sunburned on the inside of my nostrils due to the UV waves bouncing back up from the ice. Now, every time I make the trip, I have to put sunscreen there.”

LSU’s Growing Involvement

Christner and Guzik are only two of the growing number of LSU scientists focusing on polar research.

“I think we’ll be seeing a lot more research done on polar and sub-glacial environments over the next five years,” said Christner.

“With the upcoming POLAR-PALOOZA event to pique everyone’s curiosity, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more scientists at the University taking an interest in the field,” said Guzik.

Guzik’s team joins a group of scientists from around the world to launch the ATIC balloon payload – basically a 4,000 pound experiment – into the upper atmosphere. To prepare the balloon, which is more than 1,000 feet in length, for launch, the teams spend approximately three backbreaking weeks working 18-hour days. After a dress rehearsal to verify that everything is in working condition, the helium truck is brought in, the balloon inflated, and ATIC is off to circumnavigate the pole, sending data back to researchers in Antarctica and back at their home universities. Guzik’s team is particularly interested in collecting cosmic ray information.

Christner and his research team, including LSU senior Shawn Doyle, will travel with 2,500 pounds of gear for about an hour and a half by helicopter to reach what are known as the “dry valleys” of Antarctica. They will spend two months there, using chainsaws to drill a tunnel into the base on a glacier.

“Glaciers archive information from the atmosphere in chronological sequence,” said Christner. “There’s a record of when the atomic bomb was detonated, when Krakotoa erupted … it’s all recorded in the ice. These records have provided invaluable information about past climates, but the biology also preserved in the ice has only received attention in the last decade.”

The Importance of Polar Research

LSU is certainly making its mark in Antarctica, which is important because, as global climate change continues to make its presence known, polar environments will give us a preview of what changes we can expect locally. Like many Louisiana natives, polar residents are experiencing rapid erosion of their land – in this case due to melting permafrost. And warming ocean temperatures have the potential to generate an increasing number of large, powerful hurricanes, a situation that could prove devastating to coastal states such as our own.

“Most people think of the polar regions as being so remote and so distant that they don’t really matter,” said Christner. “But they do, for lots of reasons. Most life on the planet operates under cold conditions, like deep ocean dwellers. Importantly, if the polar ice sheets melted, the sea level will increase by 65 meters.”

“Think of it this way,” said Doyle. “Baton Rouge would be obliterated with an increase of only 10 meters.”

Ashley Berthelot | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Fall 2007

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