Science at the Poles - Research As Cool As It Gets

bridges vol. 10, June 2006 / Feature Articles
by Irene Eckart

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Emperors_LandisNSF_final Have you ever seen the 2005 TV spot for Coke Classic, where a polar bear peers down a snowy slope before being offered a bottle of Coke by a penguin? It will hardly come as a surprise to anybody that this will never happen. The main reason why polar bears and penguins will not be peacefully united on an ice floe, however, is less well-known: polar bears live in the Arctic, penguins in Antarctica. Maybe marketing people just don't care that much about reality. Maybe the real cause for (and effect of) illustrations of this kind, though, is that the general knowledge of the polar regions is not at its peak.


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}From Exploration to Scientific DiscoveryPoarbear_NatIce_final

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the "Heroic Age" of polar expeditions, people took great risks to increase the world's knowledge of these remote parts of the globe. Although not all explorers were exclusively motivated by scientific discovery, the research they conducted was not just a pleasant sideline but often - in addition to a good measure of luck - a prerequisite for an expedition's success. For instance, Fridjof Nansen, in his 1895 search for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, observed a certain movement of polar ice and brought about a conceptual breakthrough in handling ice travel. Instead of a huge warship, he decided on a smaller and lighter vessel and let it be grabbed and lifted up by the ice. It moved in the right direction, indeed, just not close enough (this is the point where luck comes in). Roald Amundsen, on his Gjoa expedition between 1903 and 1905, traversed the Northwest Passage for the first time and contributed another input: local knowledge on questions like how to dress and the use of dogs. In 1908 Robert Peary set out on another quest for the North Pole, which he claimed to have reached on April 6, 1909. Unfortunately, the same claim had been raised by Frederick Cook in 1908, although many explorers doubted this achievement. The US Congress even voted on the question of who was first: The outcome of the election was 135 to 34 in favor of Peary. Today it is generally accepted that Cook did not come close to the North Pole and Peary probably did not reach it either. According to his diary, this would have required him to cover 44 miles per day, which was unrealistic based on the reference values for speed and distances from earlier trips. The first undisputed sighting of the pole was on May 12, 19Arctic_Region_final26, by Amundsen, his American sponsor Lincoln Ellsworth, and his Italian pilot Umberto Nobile, who overflew the pole in their airship Norge and dropped the American, the Italian, and the Norwegian flags.

The Antarctic continent, on the other hand, was first spotted in 1840 by the Frenchman Jules Dumont d'Urville and only weeks later - they actually saw each other's ships - by the American Charles Wilkes. James Clark Ross, leaving only a little later, got farthest south on his 1840-1841 exploration by pure luck. He had only chosen his route based on the intention to avoid overlapping the others' trips. As a consequence of this happenstance, he was able to map the South Magnetic Pole - about a decade after he had mapped the Northern Magnetic Pole. As to the geographic South Pole, Amundsen and British Royal Naval officer Robert Falcon Scott were inspired to beat each other in their race in the winter of 1911/12. Eventually Amundsen beat Scott by about a month, mainly because he took the risk to winter-camp 60 miles further south than Scott. Amundsen returned to his base in good order, while Scott and his crew found a tragic end on their way back, running out of energy and resources and too slow to escape the Antarctic winter.

And yet, to consider Amundsen as the winner and Scott as the loser is only one side of the story. Although some criticism of Scott - who had no experience with snow travel, dogs, or skiing, and was disinclined to learn - is appropriate, the science that took place on his ship in the background of the race to the pole was of great value and still impacts us today. What both Amundsen's and Scott's achievements show are the different aspects of polar exploration and the interplay of geographic and scientific discovery.

Scientific Diversity at the Poles

Concordia_ESAIPEV_final Today it is not necessarily the adventure that motivates young scientists to travel to the poles but the state-of-the-art research conducted at the polar stations. One of these scientific bases is the CONCORDIA Station, opened in 2005, a cooperative of the French Polar Institute (IPEV) and the Italian Antarctic Program (PNRA) located on the Antarctic high plateau. Claire Le Calvez, a young engineer in energetics and chemical processes, spent 15 months at CONCORDIA as the station's technical manager. Having worked as an environmental consultant for three years, Le Calvez says she has "a foot in polar matters" since her voluntary service at Dumont D'Urville station for the glaciology lab in Grenoble in 2003. At CONCORDIA Le Calvez was responsible for organizing the work of the eight-member technical team and for finishing and qualifying the station, which was still a building site at her arrival.

Calvez_Concordia_caption Although a modern polar station today has an infrastructure in many ways not so different from a hotel, the adventure factor has not completely disappeared. People like Claire Le Calvez, who not only spent a summer at a polar station but experienced a winter-over with temperatures around 60°C/76°F below zero and no sun at all, know about the challenges the extreme environment still constitutes for polar scientists. Being asked for the most exciting experience during her stay at the South Pole, two things come to Le Calvez's mind: the departure of the last plane on February 10, 2005, and the arrival of the first plane with four passengers on November 5, 2006, earmarking the end of the winter-over - a relief, but also the end of a unique time. "In winter, we were 13 and we knew what we had to do. In summer, on the other hand, there are up to 65 people on the site and it is not the same organization at all," Le Calvez remembers.

Calvez_atwork_caption The scientists come from very diverse disciplines since the Antarctic high plateau provides a unique environment for research in glaciology, astronomy, atmospheric sciences, earth sciences, and remote sensing, as well as biology and medicine. As one of the most isolated places on Earth, the CONCORDIA Station even constitutes an excellent environment for the European Space Agency (ESA) to prepare astronauts for their mission. The coldest, windiest, driest, highest, most deserted and most unexplored continent features stressors that are very similar to the physiological and psychological problems that may arise under the extreme conditions of isolation and confinement encountered during a space journey. Two categories of science, however, particularly lend themselves to being conducted at polar regions: climate research and the exploration of our solar system.

Polar regions contain a wide variety of physical features and ecosystems. They are sensitive to subtle variations in air temperature, ocean temperature, and other climatic conditions which, according to climate models, make them particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Between 1979 and 2005, the ice thickness of Arctic sea ice, for instance, decreased by more than 8 percent per decade. The reasons are not only atmospheric changes (the Arctic is warming more than any other place on earth) and oceanic changes, but also alterations in ice circulation. Dr. Stephanie Pfirman, professor and chair of EnvironmentaSeaIceDecline_2005_finall Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, has analyzed these changes of perennial Arctic sea ice, which forms along the Siberian seas and drifts over several years across the Arctic, exiting the basin to the east of Greenland, and has developed animations in fast motion . The relatively rapid environmental changes constitute a problem for animals living in these extreme habitats, as well, forcing them to react by specializations, cold adaptation, and evolution. Studies of the underlying molecular processes leading to adaptive evolution of affected species like polar fish, as conducted by Dr. Guido di Prisco, Director of Research at the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR), will help to predict the effects of global warming on species distribution and survival.

However, the poles are not only an interesting source of information about our planet. They also serve as a window on the early solar system. Dr. Jean Duprat, leader of the program Micrometeorites @ Dome C in 2000, tries to find out more about the birth of the solar system by analyzing extraterrestrial dust (micrometeorites) in Antarctica's polar ice cap. Both the regular stratification and the low precipitation rate allow him to measure the flux of sub-millimetric material on our planet and to search for potential variations related to specific cometary events. Central Antarctica is a unique collector of interplanetary dust. The region is extremely well-protected from terrestrial dust contaminations and snow stays at a low temperature (between -70°C and -20°C) throughout the year, which minimizes terrestrial weathering and allows reliable measurement.

The Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) - the microwave echo of the big bang - is another way to study the beginning of time. It provides a record of the Universe at 400,000 years after its beginning (which is still before stars, galaxies and life appeared). The Antarctic is one of the few places on Earth or in space where the tiny variations in the CMB's intensity can be studied. The region is high and dry, has long nights and, in comparison to space, offers easy access and a great infrastructure. A series of experiments in Antarctica has already established key features of our Universe such as flatness, dark matter, and dark energy, and provided the first evidence for a burst of early expansion called cosmic inflations which cosmologists believe gave rise to our universe.

Yet another research approach is Dr. Francis Halzen's IceCube experiment, the successor of the AMANDA - Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array - telescope, conducted at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. Neutrinos, among nature's smallest and most elusive elementary particles, are cosmic messengers traveling from the stars to earth in a straight line. They cover long distances and it takes the unlikely event of their directly hitting a proton to stop them. Unfortunately that means that neither will they brake "for your average telescope mirror," as Dr. Halzen puts it in a literary essay on AMANDA. Consequently, construction of the neutrino telescope was uniquely challenging. It took about 50 planeloads to transport the various parts for a hot water drill to Antarctica. Eighty holes, each more than two kilometers deep, were melted in the Antarctic icecap to be used as an astronomical observatory. Into each hole was lowered a string knotted with football-size light detectors which are sensitive to the shimmering blue light emitted in the surrounding clear ice when neutrinos pass through the earth. The objective of IceCube is the detection of cosmic neutrino beams that will give insights on events like exploding stars, gamma-ray bursts, and cataclysmic phenomena involving black holes and neutron stars - or lead to other, possibly unforeseen, discoveries.

Calvez_Winterovercrew_capti Today, the polar regions in many ways serve as natural laboratories. They offer unique conditions that make them particularly suitable for conducting research in various disciplines and for testing hypotheses in an extreme environment. And as a result of the geographic and political situation, research at both poles is not only hallmarked by interdisciplinary but also international collaboration. Carl Weyprecht, the Austrian physicist and naval officer who discovered Franz Josef Land in the 19th century and inspired the International Polar Year (IPY) [see bridges article on the IPY 2007/08], realized very early that geographic exploration for its own sake, or for national glory, should be complemented by international science. Most of the principles for polar research, which he drew up some 125 years ago, are still valid today. One of them could stand as a motto for the world research community: Science is not a territory for national possession.


The author, Irene Eckart, is a member of the editorial team of bridges at the Office of Science & Technology at the Embassy of Austria in Washington, DC.

The above article was prepared based on the "Science at the Poles - a journey through multidisciplinary sciences" seminar at the Embassy of Italy in Washington, DC, on May 25, 2006, organized by

and on an interview conducted with Claire Le Calvez (IPEV), former technical manager of CONCORDIA, who also kindly provided pictures of the first winter-over.

Related Sources
Program of the Seminar

Concordia Station

Current winter-over

First winter-over

Presentation on Micrometeorites at Dome C

Water Recycling Systems for the Antarctic Concordia Station

A literary essay about AMANDA by Francis Halzen

CIA World Factbook Antarctic Region Map (.pdf)

CIA World Factbook Arctic Region Map (.pdf)

Additional Reading
Christoph Ransmayr: Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis{/access}