Researchers in Antarctica

January 14, 2014 •

Colorado is heading full force into winter, which means it's that time of year again: science season in Antarctica.

Every North American winter, buff "beakers," the slang term used in Antarctica for scientists, head south to the U.S. resarch center on Ross Island, called McMurdo Station, which is in the throes of summer.

The University of Colorado Boulder has multiple research projects going on in Antarctica every year. Here's a look at what teams from the Cooperative Institute for Environmental Sciences and the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research are up to this season:


Lidar team sets records

A research team led by CIRES fellow Xinzhao Chu has been probing the atmosphere above Antarctica using a lidar, a sophisticated instrument similar to a radar that sends out laser light instead of radio waves. The instrument developed and used by Chu and her team--the Fe Boltzmann Lidar--is able to measure the temperature of the middle and upper atmosphere. That data is critical to understanding how climate change is affecting the sensitive polar regions.

The team that's currently in Antarctica--shown in the photo from left, doctoral students Jian Zhao and Cao (Chris) Chen with Chu--set a new record of lidar observation over New Year by taking measurements for 174 continuous hours. Such a long record is difficult to achieve because the lidar must be manned constantly, the skies must remain clear and the extremely sensitive instrument, which must be tuned precisely to gather the target data, must work flawlessly for days on end.

Chu's team runs the lidar all year long, meaning that one student overwinters in McMurdo during the long, sunless Antarctic Winter. This year, Chen will be the one staying on after the last flight leaves McMurdo at the end of the summer research season.

Learn more about the McMurdo Lidar Project, or read past blog posts about the lidar installation.


Unmanned aircraft measures the atmosphere

CIRES fellow John Cassano is blogging about his current research project in Antarctica, which involves flying unmanned aerial vehicles--known as UAVs or drones--to measure the Antarctic atmosphere. He's already written several blog posts, but he should have a lot more to say when he makes it back to a computer after a two-week stint to a remote outpost on the barren Ross Ice Shelf.

Cassano and a team of three others--including CU-Boulder postdoctoral researcher Melissa Nigro, a graduate student from New Zealand and a "mountaineer" based at McMurdo whose job is to keep everyone safe--have traveled more than a hundred miles from McMurdo on snowmobiles to set up their field camp at the Tall Tower automatic weather station. The Tall Tower, which stretches 100 feet high, helps scientists study the vertical structure of the atmosphere. Cassano's research team is now flying their unmanned aircraft to supplement those measurements.

Cassano has more details about the research objectives on his blog--along with other fascinating details about life in Antarctica, from the training they have to take in crevasse rescue to the way meals are served at the station's galley to a sighting of an emperor penguin.

Read more on the Antarctic Unmanned Aircraft blog.

Long-term study of the Dry Valleys continues

The McMurdo Dry Valleys--the largest relatively ice-free zone on the Antarctic continent--has been studied as part of the National Science Foundation's Long-Term Ecological Research Network since 1993. The principal investigator on the project is Diane McKnight, a fellow at CU-Boulder's Insitute of Arctic and Alpine Research and a professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering. The McMurdo Dry Valleys offer researchers the opportunity to study an ecosystem that exists in extreme conditions compared to most others found in the world.

This season, INSTAAR graduate student Alex Mass is living in a tent in the Dry Valleys for three and a half months to take the samples she needs for her research. Mass, who studies the chemical degradation pathways of certain halocarbons and volatile compounds in ice and snow, is blogging about her experience in Antarctica for the third season.

Read more about Mass' experience in the Dry Valleys, or learn more about the Long-Term Ecological Research Network.