Science on Ice

An expedition across Antarctica seeks clues to the Earth’s future

The screaming roar of the engine on a Hercules C-130 military cargo plane blows the sound of your voice into oblivion, shoves your breath back down your throat, leaves you gasping, eyes watering against swirling snow. And then it is silent. After the gear – all 20,000 pounds of it – has been unloaded. After the hatch has been shut. After the plane has turned on its skis, taxied across the frozen surface, lifted into the air and finally disappeared – then it is silent. Eleven men stand clustered in the cold, their red parkas bright specks against an empty canvas of ice and snow. No one speaks. This is Antarctica – the quietest place on Earth.

For Joe Souney ’98, the silence is brand new. It is mid-November 1999, and this is the first time he has ever set foot in Antarctica. The 25-year-old University of New Hampshire graduate student was chosen for this polar adventure by expedition leader Paul Mayewski, who is returning to Antarctica for the 15th time. This is a place he knows and loves. He understands the silence.

To those few who return here often, Antarctica is known, simply, as The Ice. It is a land of riddles and extremes. The largest desert on the face of the Earth, the continent has locked within its frozen surface more than 70 percent of the Earth’s fresh water. If West Antarctica alone were to melt, sea level would rise about 30 feet and Florida would disappear. One and a half times as big as the United States, Antarctica is also the highest and the coldest of all continents. In winter, the sea ice that rings the continent doubles its size. Seals and penguins thrive here, but no land-based vertebrate can survive. Lichen, moss and algae – the only vegetation – cling to cracks and crevasses in the rock and ice.

Buried within the ice, some of it more than two miles thick, are frozen secrets – stories of the past and possible clues to the future. A recognized authority on ice and its cryptic messages, Mayewski is a passionate believer in the need to tell these stories to the world. He pieces his narrative together by studying cores drilled from the ice, analyzing the chemistry trapped inside. What he learns can help scientists make predictions about the fate of the Earth. But first he has to collect his icy specimens. First, he must do what others have done before him. He must plan an expedition.

The Lure of the Ice

In the early days of this century, another explorer sketched his vision of Antarctica onto a small napkin. Sparked more by imagination than by knowledge, Ernest Shackleton’s drawing was simple and crude, suggesting only the rough outlines of a continent he hoped to explore. In Shackleton’s day, getting to Antarctica was one of the hardest things a human being could undertake. Aptly named, the wooden schooner Endurance carried him and his men on their 1914-1917 expedition through ice-clogged waters until it was trapped, then crushed. Shackleton never achieved his goal of crossing the continent, but his story became one of the greatest epics of survival in polar history. Despite impossible odds, he did not lose a single man.

At the tail end of the same century that launched the Shackleton adventure, another expedition took shape on another napkin. One day in 1989, over dinner, Mayewski’s wife, Lyn, an artist, sketched a “research train” of giant Sno-Cats, snowmobiles and sleds. This was Paul’s vision – a series of expeditions of scientists from 15 countries, all working together to collect pieces of the same puzzle: the International Trans-Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE).

Today’s ITASE explorers set out armed with computers and radar. They can call home from outside their tents. They study satellite pictures detailed enough to depict ridges and shadows, even objects buried beneath the snow. Their mission is not so much to map the shape of the continent, but to discover its contents.

Some things, though, remain unchanged since Shackleton’s time. Today’s explorers still sleep in tents. They still bundle in layers against the cold. And sometimes they must endure the relentless boredom imposed by immobilizing storms that can last for days. Their survival still depends on meticulous planning. And they are driven by the same desire to see new territory, to make the first footprints on a still unspoiled continent. “The likelihood that you’re standing where no one else has ever walked is still great,” Mayewski observes. But “getting there” now has another purpose.

“When we first saw the Earth from outer space,” says Mayewski, director of UNH’s Climate Change Research Center (CCRC), “we realized that the climate, winds, atmosphere and ocean currents make us one world.” Since then, scientists have discovered that, remote as the continent may have seemed to early explorers, Antarctica is actually part of a large climate system that affects the whole world.

Mayewski calls Antarctica the “last canary.” It is the one place on Earth that is still relatively untouched, so it makes an ideal laboratory for studying natural climate change. Information gathered there can help scientists to calculate the effects of man-made pollution on the climate and environment.

Populated primarily by scientists and governed by international treaty, Antarctica is owned by no one. This remotest spot on Earth has become a truly “free zone,” a continent of cooperation. “One of the wonderful things about science,” says Mayewski, “is that it’s not concerned with international politics. When you’re studying atmospheric and ocean circulation, borders are meaningless. And if you’re trying to solve global problems, you have to think globally and work with others.”

Which is the whole philosophy behind ITASE. For the past decade, Mayewski, director of the international project, has helped other countries launch a series of field projects in Antarctica, even as he has been busy orchestrating and leading a dozen or so research trips to other corners of the Earth – to the Himalayas, the Arctic and Greenland. Planning for the U.S. ITASE expedition began about five years ago. And now, finally, at the tail end of the last year of the millennium, the U.S. team is headed out into the cold.

From Freezer to Frozen Landscape

Joe Souney’s trip to Antarctica actually began in a freezer many months before his arrival. Souney estimates he’s spent at least 500 hours in UNH’s Freezer No. 1, scraping and cutting ice cores. He has also collected snow samples on top of Mt. Washington, fighting to stand upright in 80 mph winds. But mostly he’s worked in the relative comfort of a 4-degree Fahrenheit freezer. Dressed as if for surgery on the moon, he wears a hooded white suit over his puffy parka, heavy pants and mukluk boots as he prepares the ice samples for analysis.

Students chosen for a polar expedition need to prove themselves, according to Mayewski, who has worked with more than 200 assistants. “If they come out of the freezer, or off the summit of Mt. Washington, and they’re still smiling, they’re a candidate,” he says. “Students don’t have to go on an expedition to get a degree, but at UNH we have a tradition of making this a real possibility.”

Souney has passed not only the “Mayewski test,” but the stringent medical and dental exam required by the National Science Foundation. When he arrives in Antarctica in late October, his training continues at McMurdo Station, an old military base on the coast of West Antarctica. With its summer population of about 1,200, McMurdo hardly feels like a remote wilderness. Its nearly 100 buildings include a carpentry shop, a mechanic shop, a large lab, a desalinization plant and a cafeteria. “It’s like a small town,” says Souney. “But you’re surrounded by these huge mountain ranges, covered in snow and glaciers – and most of them have never been climbed.”

During Snowcraft I, the required two-day course for all new arrivals, Souney is part of a team struggling in whiteout conditions to set up three tents, canvas teepees tall enough for a man to stand in. The training site on the frozen sea ice of McMurdo Sound is only a few miles from the base, but the weather is fierce. “The wind is so loud we had to stand next to each other and yell,” says Souney. They also build a 25-foot-long, four-foot-high snow wall and pitch several smaller two-man tents. They learn the danger of thawing frostbitten limbs too soon and how to work the small gas stoves in their emergency survival kits.

During his first night out, Souney forgets to leave his tent door cracked open. His breath condenses on the inside walls. Every time he moves, jostling the sides of the tent, it snows down on top of him. By morning, the outside of his sleeping bag is damp and cold.

Souney and the ITASE team spend another day learning how to save each other’s lives should one of them plunge into a crevasse. Kevin Pusey, the ITASE safety officer, is a climbing guide who specializes in cold region expeditions. He knows that snow and ice are serious business. He remembers vividly the time his climbing companion disappeared in front of him, the sickening slackness of the rope, the jerk that pulled him to the ground, dragging him toward the edge of the crevasse. He remembers slamming his boots against the snow, fighting his increasing speed, fumbling for his ice pick, driving it again and again into the snow, trying to stop the drag. He had 30 feet to save himself – to save them both. He managed, but it was nothing he ever wants to go through again.

Pusey’s job is to make sure every expedition member knows the routine: how to grab the ice pick and anchor the dangling victim. How to set up a three-to-one “Z” pulley system and how, with the greatest of care, to haul the person to safety. Though he’s prepared, Pusey isn’t expecting any mishaps. He understands glaciers, recognizes the telltale cracks, the shifting snow patterns that might suggest a hidden crevasse. And he has a radar unit to help him identify weak areas that might give way under the weight of a man or snowmobile.

On the Move in Antarctica

After two weeks of training, final organization and preparation of gear, the ITASE team is finally ready to leave McMurdo Station for the field. But departure is delayed several times because of weather. These final days of delay are just one more chapter in an expedition that has required months of preparation and attention to detail.

Securing funding for research in Antarctica, the world’s harshest lab, demands more than sound science. The research must be logistically feasible. Mark Twickler ’85, associate director of UNH’s CCRC, is one of those responsible for these logistics. Unlike “stationary research” conducted out of a single base camp, the ITASE scientists will be constantly on the move. “We have to be self-sufficient,” says Twickler, who is also ITASE’s assistant field leader.

Twickler oversaw the design and manufacture of a special insulated storage system for the ice cores, which are towed on 20-foot-long Swedish sleds with Teflon runners. He also calculated the precise amount of fuel – twenty 55-gallon drums, each weighing 450 pounds – and the necessary food for the six-week journey. Rations include lamb, beef, fish and chicken, as well as freeze-dried vegetables, a gorp mixture of dried fruit, granola and nuts, and chocolate bars. It adds up to seven pounds per person per day, or about 10,000 calories each.

By early November, every scientific instrument, every ounce of food and fuel, each piece of clothing and rescue equipment is packed and ready at McMurdo Station. The planning is over; the adventure is about to begin. As soon as the weather clears. Finally, on Nov. 22, the ITASE team lifts off from McMurdo, flies three hours southeast and lands on a glistening runway of ice and snow at Byrd Surface Camp. The team members step off the C-130 and into the arctic silence.

The ITASE expedition travels single file, a giant mechanical caterpillar creeping across the ice at five miles per hour. The two Sno-Cats haul the 20-foot sleds; the four snowmobiles pull smaller sleds with extra gear. Team members ride inside the Sno-Cats and aboard the snowmobiles. A few perch on sleds. The machines are roped together, and every expedition member is roped to the person before and behind him, constantly watching for the signal to halt – an arm straight in the air, palm forward, indicating trouble. This year, the ITASE team will cover 200 miles, stopping along the way to drill 100 to 300 feet down into the ice, extracting several cores from different sites. At one site, the team will drill a core as tall as a 60-story building. Michael Gerasimoff, a driller from Yukon Territory, Canada, runs the $100,000 drill. As he brings up each core, in three-foot chunks, Souney and Tyler Cruickshank, another UNH graduate student, help to extract each section from the barrel of the drill, log the depth registration, then carefully package the precious specimen in plastic tubing and stow it in the insulated box. “When you’re looking at chemical concentrations of parts per billion, you can’t just lay these things on the ground,” Souney says. “You have to handle them extremely carefully to prevent contamination of the chemistry within the ice.”

When they’re not on core duty, Souney and Cruickshank, along with several others, dig deep snow pits and then spend hours taking samples. Using a small hand saw, they work their way down the wall, carefully cutting out chunks just large enough to fit in narrow Tupperware containers. Each one is filled with dimethyl phthalate (DMPL), a liquid chemical designed to preserve the snow’s microstructure.

As the UNH group focuses on ice coring and snow pits, other team members from collaborating universities work on their own projects – using radar to study the subsurface ice and establishing automatic weather stations to gather information on snow accumulation, temperature and wind speed. The evidence gathered on this expedition will provide significant clues to things like sea-level change, atmospheric circulation systems and the effects of greenhouse gases. “We’re trying to figure out how the global system operates,” says Mayewski. “Understanding changes in climate and atmospheric chemistry during past 200 years can provide a window to the future.”

The need to understand the message of this place has gained urgency with the discovery of the ozone hole and, more recently, with the steady break-up of the continent itself. Jagged fragments of floating ice fill the open waters. Some loom against the horizon like a fantastic fleet of frozen ships. Many are as big as city blocks; one was as big as the state of Rhode Island. Their harsh beauty carries a sobering scientific message: the climate is changing. “The last three decades have been warmer than anything we’ve seen in the past 600 years,” says Mayewski.

Telling the Story

The story of the ice begins with the drama of a polar trek. But understanding the ice, being able to tell the story to others, begins at home. It starts in the freezer, where grad students like Joe Souney prepare the cores to be analyzed.

The samples are then taken to Sallie Whitlow’s laboratory, where they are put through one of eight ion chromatographs. Whitlow runs about 10,000 samples a year. Each one emerges from her lab with a set of numbers for each of the eight chemical species UNH scientists analyze: calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium, chloride, sulfate, nitrate and ammonium.

These chemicals are messengers, their numbers the cryptic code that holds the secrets of the ice. “We’ve got this record of climate written year by year in the ice,” says David Meeker, a UNH math professor who has worked with Mayewski for the past decade. “We don’t really know the language. I’m the guy trying to build the dictionary.”

Computer screens illustrate the vocabulary Meeker and Mayewski have been building. Wavy colored lines indicate different chemical species in the Greenland ice core, a two-mile core considered the best record of climate change in the world. “See this?” Meeker points to a sharp dip in a red line showing the sulfate record. “That’s the Great Depression, 1933, when factories closed and sulfate emissions dropped. Here in 1942 it picks up again with the war production. And in 1970, with the Clean Air act, it drops off again.”

Other sulfate peaks are produced by natural causes. “Here’s the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that buried Pompeii in 79 A.D.” Meeker flips to one more chart and points to another astonishing peak, this time in ammonium. The year is 1908, when a giant meteorite hit Siberia, sparking a massive forest fire. “And over here” – he flips to another screen – “this is the Dust Bowl, 1920, when dust in the atmosphere peaked.”

Dirt from the heartland of America, ancient gas from an Italian volcano, chemicals from a Russian forest fire – they’re all here on a computer screen, a visual depiction of the mysteries inside the ice. Meeker flips to one more chart showing the rapid temperature changes that have caught the attention of scientists around the globe. “This is sort of the holy grail of these studies,” he says. “Dramatic temperature shifts have happened before and nobody really understands why. It could happen again.”

Discoveries by Mayewski and the UNH team have helped confirm the fact that the world climate is much more erratic than was once believed. “Every 1,500 years, we’ve found a major temperature swing in a very short time – about 10 years,” notes Mayewski. “The answer to what triggers these sudden changes may be found in Antarctica.”

During this first field season, expedition members work long days – sometimes around the clock, rushing to make up for time lost to storm delays. In clear weather, the perpetual sunlight of the polar summer beats down even at midnight, warping time. In this blindingly bright universe, where temperatures hover at around -20 degrees Fahrenheit, only two things matter: science and survival. Collecting data can be repetitive and exhausting, but it must be done flawlessly or the results will be meaningless.

Here at the bottom of the Earth, where sky meets horizon in a cold blue line, where there are no distractions and few signs of life, it might be easy to become complacent or careless, to be worn down by the unforgiving routine, by the sheer effort to stay warm and well fed. But these polar explorers persist, facing down every challenge, driven by a single unforgettable fact: each chunk of ice in their gloved hands could hold clues about the fate of the Earth and the future of the human race.