Focus on Research | Penn State team shares glimpse of prep work that goes into planning a trip to the Antarctic

August 18, 2013 

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    Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects being conducted at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

    Coming up next: In a chemistry lab at Penn State, scientists have developed a new way to find and heal the bone cracks that result from diseases like osteoporosis. They are using the electric field that forms when a crack occurs to draw bone-healing nanoparticles toward the crack, where the particles deliver medications that help the bone heal.

Of all the supplies that can be hard to come by in a land of snow and ice, the first one to spring to mind probably isn’t water.

And yet that can be true in Antarctica, where summer means sunshine that stretches around the clock and turning snow into water is one of the magic tricks the teams there have to master.

“It’s very energizing with the sun up all the time,” said Don Voigt, a senior research assistant who is part of the Penn State Ice and Climate Exploration Team.

Like snowbirds that have gotten off course, researchers from Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences head to the Antarctic every December and January. It’s there that scientists are drilling deep into the ice and extracting cores that provide a historical record of the Earth’s climate and help map what might come in the future, including the potential for rising sea levels.

“Thwaites Glacier is one of the fastest thinning areas of the West Antarctic,” Voigt said. “We’re trying to understand the cause of this thinning.”

It’s also there that researchers have to adapt to sleeping, cooking, eating, driving and existing in a land of snow and ice.

“It takes advance planning on the order of several years for a large project,” said Voigt, who has been making the trek to the other side of the world for 17 years.

He provided a behind-the-scenes look at the logistics of the trips, which can last anywhere from a week to a month, not including the time spent getting there with stops in New Zealand and McMurdo Station, the international Antarctic base station. Trips generally start at the end of December, and after landing at McMurdo and taking time to acclimate, the teams from Penn State and other institutions head to camp, about 1,000 miles away.

Some years, that camp is only a stop on the way to the “deep field,” which is as far removed from civilization as it sounds and is reached by plane or snowmobile. In some cases, supplies of food and fuel are air-delivered and awaiting the teams after being deposited on the ice.

“We’ve never not found one,” Voigt said of the deliveries. “It’s always a leap of faith when you drive out to get fuel.”

Large projects that Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and Earth and Environmental Systems Institute faculty have been a part of have included drilling deep into the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, a five-year effort by Voigt and others. The 4-inch-wide ice core from that project dates back 68,000 years. The most recent project is on Thwaites Glacier, where Sridhar Anandakrishnan, professor of geosciences, and other researchers from Penn State have been heading at the end of the year.

But, before the drill meets the ice, Voigt and others have to plan not only the research but the day-to-day logistics.

That starts with giving the National Science Foundation, which provides funding for the projects, a SIP — support information package — that covers everything from what extra kitchen tools they’ll need (think pie pan and pot scrubber) to whether they’ll be using explosives (yes, as part of the process to create seismic images of the ice.) There’s how many rolls of toilet paper; how many feet of parachute cord; how many fuel cans and how many days’ worth of food for how many people.

Along with a four-person “kitchen box” — complete with plates and utensils, and pots and pans — the SIPs for past trips have included clothes pins, a coffee pot, a ladle, pie pan, pot scrubbers, perforated serving spoon, sponge, tablespoon and toaster.

Add fleece neck gaiters of varying weights, favorite hats, goggles and sunglasses, and field boots. There are standard items like sleds and snowmobiles and burners to make hot water and specialty items including a hot water drill, seismic cable and geophones. Those supplies also make the voyage from University Park to a port in California and from there, by military aircraft, to Christchurch, New Zealand.

What’s for dinner? About four pounds of food per person per day.

“It’s just like going to the grocery store,” Voigt said. Well, with a few exceptions, including having eggs that are dried, not fresh.

Breakfast could be oatmeal, eggs and hashbrowns. For lunch, it’s soup. For dinner, meat, vegetables, pasta or potatoes. Voigt likes to saute extra pizza dough in the pan with garlic and butter to go with dinner.

“We eat pretty well,” he said. “Nobody complains.”

When cooking at a remote camp, one of the biggest challenges can be creating the water, as was the case the snowy season of 2006-07.

“It takes a lot of fuel and a lot of time to make enough water,” Voigt said.

Snow, as it happens, has a low density, which means turning it into water can be time-consuming when time is in short supply.

Saying goodbye to 24-hour sunlight and returning to Pennsylvania in January when the days are short can be tricky, too. Aside from those challenges, Voigt said the Antarctic offers the teams a chance to be outside in a beautiful place focused on the work they love.

But, in what will be an off year, Voigt will be home for the holidays.

“I’m getting used to the idea,” he said, “and looking forward to being home.”

Anne Danahy is a writer for the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. She can be reached at acd2@psu.edu.

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