World's Fair

Antarctica: Cowboy Science

Hi. Apologies for the radio gap. It turns out that Trish, the co-PI and irresistible force behind this project met with an immovable ice patch and broke her femur a few days ago at the Willy Field airport on the Ross Ice Shelf. She’s “fine” now, and freshly bionic-ized with new hardware pinning together her skeleton. Oh, and we got the shot, out at the airport, while her femur was still in two parts (a shot of one of the C-130 planes framed similarly to a Ponting photograph of the Terra Nova at dock).

Trish’s own experience underscores the originally intended topic of this particular post: cowboy science. Another of the striking elements of McMurdo is the sheer over-the-top physical intensity of the scientific fieldwork that is done here (and the scientists that do it). Many of the research support staff and researchers I met included people who guide climbers up mountains in their off-season time, or go to the 7am Insanity Workout sessions in the gym at McMurdo, before breakfast, or skate across the United States (complete with slides and short videos shown during a Monday night Travelogue in the Galley). These men and women are Antarctic cowboys in their own right, but many/most of them also use their special prowess to do their science as well: cowboy scientists.

Zach Sudman (in the picture below) works on the stream team. He lives and works in the Dry Valleys for the bulk of the summer season, climbing up and down hills and around lakes to make his measurements of the depth and flow of Dry Valley streams as part of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project. The picture below shows him surveying a stream. This picture is posed similar to one of the many Herbert Ponting photographs of the initial surveying of Antarctica conducted during Scott’s expeditions in the early 1900’s.

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Zach’s colleague, Forrest (who is a mountain guide in the Antarctic off-season), said he hikes for many miles every day in the valleys, just for fun. He also collects water and algal samples as part of the LTER project.

Ian Barry, shown in the picture below this paragraph, spends the entire year in Antarctic, working about a mile and a half away from McMurdo at a site called Arrival Heights, where he is part of a research project that measures the temperature at the edge of space using laser detected shifts in the electronic state of iron atoms in the troposphere. Here he is on the roof holding a card over the emission tube for one of the lasers. This picture is posed similarly to a hundred year old Ponting picture of Nelson measuring the temperature under the ice on the Terra Nova.

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Other cowboy scientists we met included a team that works on Mount Erebus (saw them around 3pm one afternoon leaving for a helicopter to fly up to the Erebus station, several thousand feet up the volcano, and they said they’d see us at the bar after dinner – no big deal, just gotta go up the volcano for a bit…). A team testing a new drill went up into the snow and ice field above McMurdo each day seeing how far their new drill would go (apparently no one knew how deep the snow and ice were there; they had gone down at least 1000 feet without hitting rock so far). Aneliya is a grad student who also works in the Dry Valleys, where she is part of a team that hauls about 100 pounds of lidar equipment up and over various hills to document the topological changes in various stream beds in the valleys. One afternoon she also hopped on a helicopter to fly out to Cape Royds and collect a water sample from Pony Lake – all in a day’s work for a cowboy/cowgirl scientist. David Ainely, who was mentioned in an earlier post helicopters around tracking the penguins – asking the helicopter pilots to land in various new places where he can then hike out of sight for an hour or so taking stock of where the penguins might have wandered.

Scientific field work anywhere is, of course, often challenging and difficult – the type of thing only people as obsessional as your average scientist will do – especially since the “payoff” is not financial, is not social, is not political, and is not measured in fame or celebrity – the payoff is the next data point. I often find it amazing how few of the “general public” really understand this about scientists – what we’ll do for the next data point. I also find it amazing how little filmmakers understand this about the scientists portrayed in their films, even with all the science advisors available to them. All science is adventure. Some of it, however – an hour helicopter flight out of McMurdo Antarctica and halfway across a frozen lake, or just below the rim of the Mount Erebus lava lake – is a little bit more wild west. Cowboy science.