Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Antarctica: A frozen hotbed of climate research for hardy scientists (belated post of story)

(As published in The Kansas City Star:)

ANVERS ISLAND, Antarctica | Roald Amundsen attacked this frozen nowhere-land as a racing explorer, determined to be fastest, to be first, to be remembered.
His determination and savvy got him to the South Pole before any other, and made him a hero in an age when Antarctica existed in the human imagination as a final conquest.
Mostly for show, he brought along a scientist.
Just shy of a century later, the conquerors have given way to the curious.
Now scientists such as geologist David Barbeau and ornithologist Kristen Gorman, rugged individuals of another age, shuttle in rubber Zodiac boats from remote research stations and ice-breaking research ships. They bump aside small floes, bend against brutal polar winds and scramble up cliffs in search of their own discoveries.
They search not for fame, but for answers about the same climate that once tortured and killed their polar adventuring forebears. Around this continent, the weather has mellowed alarmingly. Giant glaciers and tiny creatures are threatened as this tip of our global iceberg warms faster than anywhere else on earth.
These modern-day researchers come not to conquer, but to understand.
Almost by accident, Barbeau’s career as a geologist has been swept up, and upward, on the wave of interest about what makes parts of the planet freeze and thaw, and what that says about climate change.
He leads Antarctic expeditions hatched and financed entirely on the strength of theories about how the continent broke off from South America and iced over.
Gorman, meanwhile, tracks how dwindling Adelie penguin colonies connect to the retreat of sea ice. She navigates guano-slick boulders.
She teams with researchers steering remote-control submersibles into undersea canyon feeding grounds to measure how the birds fare asAntarctica’s glacial edges crumble into the sea.
“We’re asking simple questions about food ecology in this larger framework,” she said of fish and shrimplike krill and their feathered hunters. “How do you better predict how climate will affect predators?”
It wasn’t so much that science drew her to the wilds of Antarctica. It was an overwhelming need to work in wild places that sucked her into ornithology.
Though Barbeau ends up climbing mountains and skiing across glaciers, he recognizes that the strain and danger don’t compare to what the men of Amundsen’s age knew. But they were just looking for fame and national bragging rights.
“The first to do this, the first to do that,” he said dismissively. “We’re just trying to understand things. With climate science, you’re talking about something that’s critical.”
He and Gorman are just two among scores building careers in modern-day Antarctica, where climate studies promise academic status and grant money.
At the South Pole, researchers take core samples of ice, measuring the gases trapped in them to see what Earth’s atmosphere was like thousands of years ago. In the Drake Passage, measurements taken by ship and satellite reveal how much carbon dioxide is absorbed by sea life.
Observations made over decades on the Ross Ice Shelf and along the Antarctic Peninsula look at changes in temperature and ice levels, and what that’s meant to whales, seals, penguins and the krill at the nexus of the food chain.
For six weeks, late last year, electrical engineers from the University of Kansas flicked switches and toggled computer controls in a DC-8 jet sweeping back and forth over the frozen wastes. Their purpose: to peer through the continent’s miles-deep blanket of ice.
Ross MacPhee, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, sees a particular personality in the researchers drawn south of the Polar Front. He is both a paleontologist and a scholar of polar exploration, and traveled on his own Antarctic expedition in 2009.
While the great breakthroughs of the Digital Age typically appear in laboratories using fast-developing technology, he said, a breed of scientist survives that still prefers to work in the wild. It may be as much that their science delivers them outdoors, as that they need to go the wilderness to advance their science.
“We’re talking about someone who doesn’t mind being too cold or too wet or too sweaty,” MacPhee said, “someone who actually enjoys tough conditions.”
Antarctica is a hotbed of new climate patterns that serve as a nifty laboratory for understanding what’s happening to the Earth as a whole.
Its long, dark winters make it the best place on Earth for observing the heavens. Its air is the cleanest on the planet, giving researchers a baseline to compare with other regions. Some 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is locked into 30 million cubic kilometers of Antarctic ice.
The United States alone spends more than $300 million a year on research here — supply flights to the globe’s most forbidding landscapes, icebreakers plowing the seas for oceanographic research, delivering people like Gorman and Barbeau to remote coasts.
Barbeau is the point man on a $700,000 grant that has brought him here for three years running and paid for nearly 20 other researchers either to accompany him or to perform lab analysis back in the United States.
All the modern work feeds, and is driven by, findings like those of the Nobel-decorated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that carbon dioxide levels are at a 650,000-year high and climbing. Such buildup of gas in the atmosphere — the IPCC attributes the steep rise chiefly to industrialization — could explain why nine out of every 10 glaciers in the world are shrinking.
Global warming remains a controversial concept, made more so when the hacking of e-mails from researchers at East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit last year revealed that they toyed with data to make for more dramatic results. Skeptics also like to point out how most of Antarctica has not warmed appreciably.
Scientists in Antarctica, though, say the climate here has changed quickly and profoundly. Shifting atmospherics mean more ice is piling up in the Ross Sea and around the South Pole — evidence of an extraordinarily dry place seeing slightly more snow.
The Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost spit of land jutting up toward South America, is rapidly thawing. Since 1950, average midwinter temperatures there have climbed almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit and now range around 14 degrees.
Such data, goes the mainstream consensus, suggest the planet’s climate is changing faster than ever before.
The first decade of the 21st century was the warmest on record, a fact that was not missed at December’s international talks at Copenhagen. Although little came from that climate summit, political pressure to slash carbon emissions is only mounting.
Meanwhile, sea ice — formed on the ocean surface in the coldest temperatures — floats off the northern peninsula for 80 fewer days a year than it did a quarter-century ago. In 2002, a chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island broke from the peninsula’s eastern shore. In 2008, more than 150 square miles more fell off its west side.
The warming here is the fastest on the planet, five times that of the rest of the globe.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who barely survived a trek to collect penguin eggs in 1911 on Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed British run to the pole, described Antarctic exploration as “at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.”
Times have changed.
“Hi, guys!” Gorman cheerily greets her subjects on Cormorant Island.
She talks to the birds: big-footed, Technicolor cormorants; hovering, scavenging skuas; squawking, knee-high, feces-mottled penguins.
While she labors to keep her scientist’s detached powers of observation, Gorman can’t avoid an affinity for the grandeur of giant petrels or the chubby adorability of a downy penguin chick.
After five years on the Antarctic peninsula, she said, “I still think the penguins are cute.”
Sitting indoors in flip-flops and a down jacket patched with duct tape, Gorman looks younger than her 35 years.
In a schoolgirl voice, the doctoral candidate at Simon Fraser University punctuates conversations with “cool” and “super cool” — typically in appreciation of the look of a bird or the power of isotopes to reveal an animal’s diet.
Day after Antarctic day, she hikes through penguin breeding grounds, weighing the eggs, examining the young, documenting the declining numbers.
She sees the penguins arrive in the spring. Watches them tend eggs, many of which are devoured by predators. She studies their hatchlings, sees them snatched away under the rough law of this frozen jungle.
Increasingly and problematically less frozen.
That’s bad news for the Adelie penguin.
In 1975, 15,000 pairs nested along the peninsula and its scores of small islands. Now there are fewer than 4,000.
Gorman has tracked the phenomenon for the last five years while working out of the U.S.-run Palmer Station. The pace and stamina of her and her research companion, Jennifer Blum, awe even the hardy folks drawn down here.
Nearly every day of the sun-saturated Antarctic summer, the two lace hiking boots, yank on layers of fleece and Gore-Tex and climb into a tiny Zodiac outboard. They motor from one small island to the next well into the evenings.
The sea at times pounds their bow, or surrounds them in ice. Each landing requires one researcher to climb boulders with wet rope in hand while the other fights wind and current to anchor the boat out of harm’s way. Then they trek among two-ton elephant seals and irritated penguins.
Penguins look sweet enough, but they are tight bundles of muscle. With beaks. Pick one up, it will resist. Gorman’s forearms bear a constellation of penguin scars.
“They’re less cool,” she said, “when you have to handle them.”
Rain still makes her uneasy — not because she can get soaked in the cold, but because it makes for a dangerously slick slime when it mixes with bird guano on the rocky islands.
The Adelies feed in spots where the churning of warmer and cooler water stirs up nutrients and promotes the growth of fish and krill.
The birds need winter sea ice to launch their daytime hunts. As that ice has receded, the Adelies are forced farther south in the winter. Scientists call that climate migration. For the penguins, it means shorter days and less feeding time.
While Gorman’s job is to collect the sober data of science, she concedes some feeling for her subjects.
One evening in December as she plucked a guitar with friends and someone sang “Orphan Girl” (I have no mother no father/No sister no brother), Gorman put on a half-acted frown.
“This makes me think,” she said sadly, “of the penguin chicks.”
Antarctica holds 91 percent of the Earth’s ice.
So KU scientists have a whole lot of measuring to do.
For six weeks, the electrical engineers peered through ice sheets so thick that only in recent years have scientists found entire mountain ranges hidden below the surface.
For much of the last two decades, the chief way to monitor ice in Antarctica was with satellite readings. But the man-moon operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration over the pole soon will fall out of service.
In stepped CReSIS, the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, a collection of climate and technological experts. As a result, NASA’s “Ice Bridge” observation project will run until a replacement satellite goes into orbit in 2014.
The DC-8 is packed with gear made by engineers from KU and elsewhere especially for the job of teasing out new detail about how much ice is stored in the Earth’s natural freezers and how it’s changing.
The flights, which also go over Greenland in the summer of the Northern Hemisphere, tend to be low-altitude, ground-hugging affairs often fighting some of the strongest winds on the planet.
“You really have to hold on,” said Chris Allen, a professor in KU’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and an associate director for CReSIS.
“It got kind of scary a couple of times. But sometimes that’s what it takes to get the job done.”
In its 11 hours aloft, the plane passed from Punta Arenas, Chile, soaring over the Antarctic sea where Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance crew was stuck for more than a year, the trail Amundsen blazed, the ice where Scott perished.
Radar signals bounce back from the gleaming white below; terabytes of data feed into the flying lab’s humming computers, enough data each day to fill more than 1,000 pickup trucks with books. This season, the plane logged enough miles to circle the planet four times.
“There was always something to deal with” — software glitches, fidgety hard drives, turbulent skies — “but that’s what makes the challenge interesting,” Allen said.
Even at 35, the geologist Barbeau possesses the persona of a brainy hippie backpacking between hostels rather than that of a professor leading polar expeditions.
His work in the slow-moving field of geology plays into the rush to understand climate change by looking at a critical question: Did glaciers take overAntarctica after it split free from South America, or before?
We know the glaciers arrived 35 million years ago. But the land mass had been sitting at the pole for 100 million years before the chill set in.
The continent is cut off today by the Polar Front, an ocean current and prevailing winds circling the continent from west to east, the water moving with a force 100 times greater than that of all the world’s rivers combined.
If the breakup of the Andes mountain chain — which opened the Drake Passage between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula — occurred before the cold arrived, that suggests it was the seclusion enforced by the Polar Front that later froze it over.
But if the opening of the Drake Passage took place after the glaciers came, then it was probably a gas thing.
It would have been a reversal of what is happening today. The planet would have been experiencing a sudden flourish of plant and animal life, with great quantities of carbon absorbed. Less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere meant less greenhouse effect trapping the sun’s warming energy.
Barbeau’s polar field work could be as vital to his career as Amundsen’s conquest of the South Pole was to his. Both set off with the blessings of their patrons — the Norwegian government and sundry benefactors for Amundsen, principally the National Science Foundation for Barbeau — who had placed bets on their success.
Amundsen beat the British and got a sea named after him.
There will never be a Barbeau Bay, but Barbeau’s discovery landed the geologist a prestigious NSF grant — a huge boon to his research and important to his standing on campus. It meant hundreds of thousands of dollars for his university’s overhead. That success, Barbeau is certain, is the reason he learned while in Antarctica in December that he had achieved tenure at the University of South Carolina.
“It’s a matter of stumbling on the right problem,” Barbeau said, recognizing that by feeding the chic niche of climate science, his work stands much more likely to draw grants and prestige.
At work, he is a wiry prospector wielding a small pickax and an undersized sledge hammer and toting as much as 80 pounds of rocks over miles of snow. Where Amundsen used a compass and a sextant, Barbeau marks his finds with a Garmin satellite navigator.
And where Amundsen learned the value of dogs and fur garments, Barbeau has come to appreciate that less is more. Just enough clothing to keep an active man from shivering, just enough gear to pry rocks loose from a mountainside.
“Every minute on the ground is precious,” he said. “Fewer trips back and forth from the boat mean more time at work, more energy and more focus.”
While he feels pressure to push his science forward, to scope out possibilities for the next grant, Barbeau is constantly aware that he makes a living going to spectacular places.
The Antarctic coast is surely that. Mountaintops jut from the ocean. Glaciers show their alabaster cliffs to the shore. Whales lumber by the research ship that hauls him along the coast, penguins torpedo past its bow, albatrosses glide above it — all in a landscape painted in arresting whites, grays and blues.
“A simple glance around or a thought of how few people have been able to do geology in such a place,” he said, “can lighten a pack by 20 pounds or more.”
Editor’s note
Kansas City Star reporter Scott Canon spent five weeks at Palmer Station on the Antarctica Peninsula and on the Southern Ocean late last year. His travels there and in 2008 to Toolik Lake, Alaska, inside the Arctic Circle, were made possible by a science journalism fellowship awarded by the Marine Biological Laboratory and funded by the National Science Foundation. Photographs for this series are by Canon. Darryl Levings edited the story. The graphics are by Dave Eames. A blog of Canon’s trips to the Antarctic and Arctic is at scottcanon.blogspot.com .
To reach Scott Canon, call 816-234-4754 or send e-mail to scanon@kcstar.com .

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