Antarctica is one of Earth’s most forbidding places. That’s why CU researchers keep going back.
Standing at the base of an Antarctic glacier in 2016, Pacifica Sommers watched the transport helicopter fly away, leaving her and a few fellow CU biologists all alone in one of the coldest and most remote places on Earth.
“You do sort of realize at that point that a rescue wouldn’t be cheap or easy,” the postdoctoral researcher said.
It was quite a change of scenery for Sommers, who had completed her doctoral studies in the Arizona desert. She remembers standing sideways next to a Saguaro cactus to make use of its narrow band of shade in 100-plus-degree heat.
Now, she was strapping on crampons and setting up camp in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the only area of Antarctica that isn’t permanently covered by snow. The dark, exposed soil on the hillsides resembles Colorado’s alpine landscapes: beautiful, rugged, desolate.
But while the world’s coldest, windiest, driest continent may appear hostile to life, Sommers knows it’s quite the opposite. Small pockets in the surface known as cryoconite holes teem with microorganisms, all of which have adapted to survive an extreme environment. These naturally occurring test tubes could help scientists better understand evolutionary selection on Earth and even life on other planets.
“Ecosystems depend on historical contingency and randomness,” Sommers said. “We want to study how chance affects what biological communities look like and how they assemble.”
Antarctica’s 5.4 million square miles make for a pristine, if imposing, natural laboratory: All but 2 percent of the surface is covered in thick ice. The vast continent, nearly one and a half times the size of the contiguous U.S., has little in the way of commerce, government or human habitation. At the summer peak, in January, around 5,000 scientists and contractors occupy a handful of international stations near the coasts. In winter, when temperatures reach 50 degrees below zero, that population drops to roughly 1,000.
The thrill of scientific discovery in a place most people will never visit is matched by its challenges. The months-long work is grueling, the isolation is daunting and the days are long — literally, since the polar summer months bring near-constant sunshine. And yes, it’s pretty cold.
In Sommers’ first season on the ice, she wasn’t sure what to expect and admits she might have overpacked. By year two, she was a seasoned pro reveling in the occasionally balmy December weather.
“It can get up to 30 degrees or so,” she said. “We took our shoes off and played frisbee.”
CU researchers usually begin arriving in November. Their first stop after a six-hour military aircraft flight from Christchurch, New Zealand, is McMurdo Station, the continent’s population hub, known colloquially as “town.” Year after year, this international outpost becomes a temporary home away from home.
Ian Geraghty (Aero’18) spent his first season in Antarctica in 2017. Now a research assistant at CU, he’s part of an engineering team using laser equipment to study the mysteries of Earth’s atmosphere, including persistent gravity waves that could influence air circulation and weather patterns worldwide.
To obtain the most precise measurements, the delicate setup must be operated by hand around the clock, he said. This would be a true feat in Boulder, let alone at the ends of the earth. Geraghty and a colleague work in shifts, squeezing themselves into narrow alleys between banks of machinery filling an entire shack.
"It’s good to bring spare parts,” he said. “Because you can’t just go to the hardware store.”
Geraghty marvels over the many quirks of life at McMurdo. Hiking trails abound with curious penguins, and the night sky dazzles with aurora. Communication with the outside world is limited, and internet bandwidth is late ’90s-era slow. The accommodations are akin to army barracks or college dorms, with bunk beds and shared bathrooms down the hall
Researchers invariably lament the scarcity of fresh produce. When fruit and vegetables arrive by plane — infrequently, given weather patterns — it’s instantly the talk of camp.
But the rest of the menu is surprisingly good: Contractors in the restaurant-quality mess hall prepare impressive rotating fare such as Mongolian barbecue, Italian pasta and burgers. (The late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain paid a visit in 2017.)
Much like summer camps elsewhere, there is a certain unshakable camaraderie among the 500 or so people who return to populate McMurdo every year.
“It’s funny because you’ll hear someone say they’re not coming back, and then you’ll see them next year, as usual,” says Xinzhao Chu, a professor and researcher at CU’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). She has led the atmospheric laser project since 2010 and has been traveling to Antarctica since 1999.
Chu marvels at her students’ willingness to travel so far and endure so much in the name of research that can only be accomplished in polar conditions.
“Everything that they are doing contributes to getting a bigger picture of the makings of the atmosphere,” she said.
Engineering professor Michael Gooseff (CivEng’98) is another Antarctic long-timer. He’s been making the trip annually for over two decades, first as a CU graduate student, now as principal investigator of the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) project, which studies the unique Dry Valleys ecosystem.
“Every time I go in the Valleys, it feels like a place where no one has been before,” Gooseff says. “There’s an obvious Martian analogue here. You fly over and see no sign of life, but on the ground and in the streams and lakes, you see beautiful microbial mats filled with color.”
Gooseff lauds CU’s commitment to Antarctic studies and cites scientific operations on the continent broadly as a model of international collaboration. New Zealand, China, Italy and South Korea all have stations within an hour of McMurdo by helicopter, and it’s not uncommon for the scientists of several nations to help each other out — a kind of United Nations on ice.
“I think we all realize that it takes a lot of investment to work down here,” Gooseff said. “That raises the requirement on us to produce as much quality research as we can and get the results out there to the public in a relatable way.”
This year, Geraghty is headed back for another tour of duty. Except this time, when the last summer transport leaves in February, he won’t be on it. He and graduate student Zimu Li, will stay at McMurdo through October 2019 with a skeleton crew to manage the laser equipment in winter’s pervasive darkness.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” he said. “But it feels good to work really hard and contribute to a big project with some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.”
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Photo by @Getty Images/ David Merron Photography (top); Photos courtesy Michael Gooseff (helicopter) and Xinzhao Chu research group.