Amidst Wind and Snow

Much more happens in Antarctica than you may think.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Rin Fukuoka

By the time you read this, it has likely been over a year since COVID-19 entered the United States. Ask any Stuyvesant student, and they would respond that they have become all too familiar with seclusion since then. Yet this lifestyle has been typical for researchers in Antarctica since 1958. A majority of the population knows of Antarctica’s existence—perhaps you learned about the seven continents and that scientists are working in Antarctica while learning what two plus two was. However, few people are aware of the research scientists have been periodically conducting on the continent’s desolate terrain.

At first glance, Antarctica’s freezing winds and dry climate make it inhospitable for any humans brave enough to enter the isolated expanse. Despite this, the Earth’s coldest continent has much to offer for scientific research. Upon closer inspection, these deadly conditions make it an ideal location for biological, astronomical, oceanic, and meteorological research. In fact, thousands of scientists spend up to a year gathering data for various research projects. Several groups of scientists have probed Antarctica’s icy landscape, which houses a treasure trove of meteorites that would have disintegrated upon or after impact, had they landed anywhere else in the world. Other scientists in research stations scattered throughout the continent constantly conduct investigations to uncover new information about Earth, its organisms, and extraterrestrial objects.

As global warming continues to threaten communities around the world, the Antarctic ecosystem becomes an increasingly valuable area of study, as it can reveal the most immediate effects of rising temperatures on the organisms most sensitive to it. The scientists in the AnT-ERA program recognize the threat of global warming and observe its effects on the local wildlife in Antarctica’s pristine landscape to study biological resilience to warmer temperatures. This research can reveal the nuances in both molecular and ecological interactions, such as the effect of temperature on an organism’s ability to create enzymes and how this change manifests in the ecosystem. Currently, the researchers are working on compiling this information in data workshops and creating panel discussions centered around the preservation of wildlife. This scientific evidence not only helps spread awareness about climate change but also informs researchers studying other ecosystems about resilience toward a warmer climate and the threshold at which temperatures become dangerous. Thus, this research has potential applications in future technology and solutions that could mitigate the effects of climate change before it is too late.

To meet these ends, the Belgian Ice Sheet-Shelf Ice Measurements in Antarctica project aims to study the movement of Antarctic ice and its composition. This effort, led by glaciologists Frank Pattyn and Jean Louis Tison, involves drilling to acquire samples of ice and numerous measurements of ice thickness. These scientists also establish a network of tracking beacons, communicating the distance from each other to a receiver to track the movement of the ice. With this data, scientists can reliably measure the annual erosion of ice due to global warming.

American scientists have also dedicated three research stations to closely monitoring the ozone hole over Antarctica and its effects on local wildlife. In the future, this team hopes to create more realistic simulations documenting various factors leading to ozone depletion and its effects. Another team located in the McMurdo station focuses on finding evidence of glacial erosion due to global warming. As part of their investigations, they use a process called swath bathymetry, an application of sonar technology to measuring depth, to discover evidence of underwater glacial impacts. This technology allows them to document the tectonic features of the ocean floor to better understand Earth’s interior and its interactions with the ocean. This understanding helps scientists better predict earthquakes and find solutions to limit their damage.

Research facilities in Antarctica also gather astronomical data. You may remember the black hole image that shook the world in April 2019 which originated from a network of telescopes, including one in Antarctica. In addition to that, the SAMBA project, an initiative started by a team of Belgian and Japanese scientists at the Princess Elisabeth Station, aims to uncover meteorites that struck Antarctica’s surface. The team reasons that while 37000 tons of meteorites fall to Earth each year, only a minuscule fraction of them can be readily observed, as many fall into the oceans, while others look deceptively like earthly rocks. However, the meteorites that fall into Antarctica’s snow meet a different fate. Upon impact, these rocks are preserved in ice and lay uncontaminated for years until wind erodes the ice enough for the meteorites to be uncovered. By researching these meteorites, scientists gain insight into the composition of objects in our early solar system, along with more information on the formation of the Earth. In addition, studying previous impacts helps inform scientists how to better predict and prepare for future collisions. Scientists can also prepare for solar storms by observing the sun and sky above Antarctica, thanks to the clarity provided by low levels of atmospheric water vapor, allowing them to accurately measure cosmic background radiation with increased precision.

Psychological research is also conducted on humans to document the effects of long-term isolation, which may be useful for future space voyages. One study identifies a new coping mechanism adopted by scientists in isolation. Dubbed “winter-over syndrome,” this mental state is a protective measure against chronic stress in which individuals become less reactive to their senses and emotions. As a result, while this “psychological hibernation” allows individuals to work in an isolated setting without losing their minds, it also exposes them to risks they would have otherwise sensed and avoided. In the Antarctic setting, the scientists risk injury in the freezing environment. But on a potential mission to Mars, scientists would experience prolonged winter-over syndrome, which could spell catastrophe if not properly addressed.

Despite being over 9,000 miles away from Stuyvesant, Antarctica is still relevant to our lives as students. Let Antarctic research serve as an example of practicing resourcefulness in dire situations. As dull and draining remote learning can be, there will always be ways of mitigating stress. Like the scientists of the South Pole unearthing meteorites from ice, you too can find joy in boredom. It all begins when you keep track of the erosion around you—when you set beacons to track the activities you enjoy. Though it may feel like we have spent a year in Antarctica, there are still many ways to turn our current situation around.