Science and Technology News

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Making the Grade: Guam High School [Dispatches from Antarctica]

By John Ohab

We recently received a comment from Eric Eisaman, a physics and earth space science teacher at the Department of Defense Education Activity’s Guam High School. Mr. Eisaman’s  students were interested in learning more about Lt. Col. Vaughan’s experiences on the ice, so we had Mr. Eisaman’s class submit their top questions.

Some of the questions required specific expertise, so I’ve asked for a little help from Col. Paul Sheppard, Deputy Commander, Joint Task Force  – Support Forces Antarctica,  and 1st Lt. Kelly Langguth, Flight Nurse, 133rd Airlift Wing Minnesota Air National Guard. I hope you enjoy!

Stayed tuned for two more question and answer posts from elementary  students at the Department of Defense Education Activity. Please feel free to let us know what you think in the comment section. Off we go!

1. Other than extreme cold temperatures, what advantages exist for scientists, besides scientists studying the polar region, in Antarctica?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: Aside from the cold, Antarctica has vast areas untouched and unspoiled by human activity.  Science that requires research in large areas of pristine landscape may find unique advantages here.

The South Pole offers a unique vantage point for space observations, particularly with 24/7 darkness half the year. There are many species only found in Antarctica. In some cases, the food chains of these species have remained constant for many years, permitting scientists to compare such ecosystems with other more distressed systems around the globe.

There are atmospheric qualities in Antarctica, such as the ozone hole, which make this a prime spot to research effects in the lower and upper atmosphere. Very thick areas of ice accumulated over centuries, such as the 10,000 feet deep ice around the South Pole, provide glimpses back in time, like the rings on a tree. Atmospheric phenomena from hundreds, even thousands, of years ago leave chemical traces on the surface of the ice. As the seasons and years bury old ice with new, a record remains.  Scientists drill for cores of these records and can correlate data with other sources to gain information on climate change activity over time.

Additionally, the ice and snow which covers most of the land area provide a visual advantage for scientists searching for meteorites. In some places, meteorites are easier to find here as they tend to stand out from the surrounding white terrain. A cursory examination of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Program’s website gives even more examples as to why this is a one of kind place yielding invaluable science. The list I provided here is only a beginning…there is much much more.

2. What kinds of hydraulic, brake, and other fluids do the C-130s run with in order to prevent freezing?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: The C-130s operating in this environment use modified fluids that provide temperature ratings down to about -55C. One area of scientific research that needs more work is developing fuels and fluids that are both environmentally friendly and work down to temperatures as low as -100C. That might permit safer and longer operations in Antarctica. I suspect such a breakthrough might do well at the science fair too.

3. How do you prevent ice from forming on the control surfaces both on the ground and in the air?
Col. Paul Sheppard, Deputy Commander, Joint Task Force  – Support Forces Antarctica: Dark paint and sunlight. Deicing fluids are toxic and prohibited here. Chipping away at ice is forbidden as it may damage the aircraft surface. In extreme cases, we have heat producing carts that can provided hot, ducted air to areas of the aircraft to prevent or melt ice. Remember, this is the coldest and driest continent, so sticky snow and slushy ice, like those found on the mainland U.S., are not normally an issue.

4. What kind of animals are there where you are in Antarctica?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: In and around McMurdo Station, most of the animals are actually in the ocean and not visible on a daily basis.  Scientists provide us a glimpse these animals, either through science lectures, lab tours, or by descending into the observation tube set up on the edge of the ice.  In the observation tube, visitors climb down and can see small fish other sea creatures through the plexiglass walls.

The animals that I see most often on the surface are Skuas (a predatory seabird related to the North American jaeger), Weddell Seals, and Adelie Penguins.  This year we were fortunate to see Emperor Penguins who wandered into the ice runway complex. In past seasons, I’ve seen Orcas, Minke Whales, and cod fish brought up by the scientists.

5. What are the seasonal differences in weather at the base?
Col. Paul Sheppard, Deputy Commander, Joint Task Force  – Support Forces Antarctica: +40 to -80F.

6. How equipped and manned is the medical unit at your base?
1st Lt. Kelly Langguth, Flight Nurse, 133rd Airlift Wing, Minnesota Air National Guard: The medical clinic at McMurdo, McMurdo General Hospital, is the largest medical facility in Antarctica.  It is staffed by three doctors, a dentist, nurse administrator, flight nurse, laboratory technician, radiology technician, pharmacy technician, and a physical therapist from the NSF’s contracting company and a flight surgeon, flight nurse, and aeromedical technician from the US Air Force.  We have medical staff that are certified to evacuate patients by air as there are many outlying camps and stations, such as the South Pole Station, that are only accessed by aircraft based at McMurdo Station.

The clinic has three inpatient beds and four clinic bays with the capabilities to care for any patient, from someone that has a cold or needs stitches to one that needs to be ventilated and monitored closely. Patients of that criticality would be evacuated to Christchurch, New Zealand in a timely manner as they would deplete the clinic’s resources very quickly. The clinic at McMurdo uses teleconferences and Internet in order to consult with specialists located in the United States. This relationship is beneficial as there are many ways that our location challenges aspects of providing medical care.

7. How are the quarters on the base, in terms of weather and durability?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: Most of the quarters on McMurdo Station are designed with a composite style construction. Corrosion is not a big player in such a cold and dry place. Therefore, painted metal shell on the outside to withstand wind and elements, with insulated layers on the interior is common. They are constructed of highly durable material. Think of big refrigerators, where the idea is keeping the cold out instead of in. As new buildings are constructed, they are designed to meet modern specifications.

As with many of the “comforts” in Antarctica, energy production is the key. Many of these buildings would quickly become cold-soaked without continual heating, both of the water supplies and of the interior spaces. Because some research involves studying ice core samples, there are designated cold buildings. One of the more unique buildings at McMurdo is the greenhouse, where fresh vegetables are grown by the local population to supplement supplies. There are some throw-back buildings such as Quonset huts too.

8. What do you do in your free time?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: Write these blogs, read, work out, visit science labs, and have real person-to-person conversations with fascinating people. These conversations represent a good change of pace because in today’s world of twitter feeds, emails, text messages, Facebook posts, and video games, I’ve grown less accustomed to such conversations. Antarctica seems to provide opportunities to do some old fashioned things like talk and read.

Music also plays an important role in Antarctica. Fortunately, the natural blending of art and science in Antarctica means that there is no shortage of good music, or musicians, here. Each January, which is normally the warmest month, residents enjoy the IceStock Festival, which features bands, solo acts and more!

9. What is the highest UV level recorded at the station?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: That’s a technical question, and I refer you to the NSF’s Polar Programs UV Monitoring Network.

From that site, we have during a period in 2008: The maximum daily UV Index was between 2.5 and 6.2. (The long-term mean calculated from measurements of the last 18 years is 4.1.) On 7-8 and 14-15 December, the maximum daily UV Index was between 5.5 and 6.2. These values were the highest ever measured on these days.

You can also visit  NASA’s version of the site.

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