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Life and Lasers in Antarctica
Sept. 16, 2013
Four months of darkness, minus-30-degree temperatures, 40-mile-per-hour winds—just another day at the lab for the Chu Research Group. The lab just happens to be at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, where CIRES Fellow Xinzhao Chu and her team spend many months every year studying the polar atmosphere. Using remote-sensing technology called lidar (light detection and ranging), they use laser light to analyze the middle and upper atmosphere. Their research is shedding light on the planet’s weather patterns, climate processes, and even the fertilization of life on Earth with essential minerals, such as iron.
To collect year-round lidar observations, one scientist from the Chu group must stay through the winter at McMurdo, operating and maintaining the equipment; three students have wintered-over thus far. The United States Antarctic Program (USAP) requires these scientists to pass rigorous physical and psychological tests before they can winter-over (see sidebar: Are you fit enough?).
“The scientists sacrifice their personal lives and do extremely hard work to collect invaluable data to enable our studies,” Chu said.
That hard work has not gone unnoticed. In July, Chu received a Provost’s Faculty Achievement Award from the University of Colorado Boulder for her highly influential research on the upper atmosphere. Additionally, for three years in a row, students from Chu’s group have won first-place prizes in the poster competition at the prestigious Coupling, Energetics and Dynamics of Atmospheric Regions (CEDAR) Workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Chihoko Yamashita won in 2011, Cao Chen in 2012, and Zhibin Yu in 2013. “As far as we know, this is the first time that the same group of students has won first place three years in a row,” Chu said.