Antarctica Research Team
STUDENTS HOT ON COLD RESEARCH
by Evelyn Boswell
Jackie Allen is probably smiling in the wintry photograph. Joining a research team that launched balloons from the Arctic was the opportunity of a lifetime, after all, the Montana State University senior said in her e-mails from the Polar Bear Capital of the World. But expressions are hard to read on a face that’s reduced to a pair of squinting eyes. The Arctic in January calls for hats and facemasks and a system of buddies who will check each other for frostbite. It means 3 p.m. sunsets and wind chills that can reach minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Snow shoots under doors and piles up toward windows as if it, too, were trying to escape the outdoors.
Despite the conditions and in some ways because of them, Allen and Kim Cochran traveled to the Arctic this year to send helium balloons high into the sky to measure x-rays in the upper atmosphere.
About the same time, Brianna Arnold and Delisa Rogers returned from Antarctica where they drilled deep into the ice-covered lakes to sample water for renowned polar biologist John Priscu of MSU. During an Antarctic spring and early summer, the sun shone 24 hours a day, making it hard to sleep but easy to work until midnight. The unhampered wind ripped through field camps. Permafrost prevented stakes, so the cold weather campers tied their tents to boulders.
MSU students have gone all over Montana for research. They’ve ventured to the coasts and sometimes out of the country. But in the past year, undergraduates have literally gone to the ends of the Earth to help solve some of the mysteries of the planet.
“It was a great experience, a great opportunity. If I had a chance to do it again, I would in a heartbeat,” said Allen, a native of Salt Lake City.
“To be able to go out into the world and see firsthand things you’ve only read in a book, it’s quite an experience,” said Cochran of Great Falls. “Being here has also given me a sense of how I would like to conduct my own research when that time comes.”
Allen and Cochran both worked in the Arctic with Dave Klumpar, director of the Space Science and Engineering Lab at MSU. Klumpar, responsible for several projects that involve undergraduates in space-related projects, arranged for MSU’s involvement in the Arctic launch. He had met Robyn Millan of Dartmouth College at various conferences and brought up the possibility of MSU students joining her in the Arctic. Millan agreed, saying she could certainly use the extra hands.
Allen, Cochran and Klumpar headed for the Arctic last January. Working out of the Northern Studies Centre in Churchill, Manitoba, they prepared payloads and mapped winds. Allen helped lay out the balloons; Cochran helped release them. The students took photos and wrote daily Internet reports of their experiences. The Montana Space Grant Consortium paid the students’ travel expenses and awarded each $500.
“It was great to have them. They were not only incredibly enthusiastic and had a great time, but they did a lot of terrific predictions for us,” Millan said months later as she continued to analyze results and make plans for her next x-ray project.
Millan’s project involved multiple universities and simultaneous balloon launches from the Arctic and Antarctica to help her measure the energetic x-ray bursts that result from electrons trapped in the Earth’s radiation belts.
One balloon from the Arctic and two from the Antarctic detected an extremely large solar flare on Jan. 20, 2005, Millan said. The flare produced a large geomagnetic storm on the Earth and lots of aurora lights with highly-energetic proton particles from the sun. Researchers are interested in such information because x-ray bursts can damage satellites and disrupt communication, she said.
On the opposite side of the globe, Arnold and Rogers spent more than two months last winter collecting water samples from the ice-covered lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Part of a field team that involved Amy Chiuchiolo and Joel Moore of MSU, they were based at the McMurdo Station, but lived at field stations while sampling Lakes Fryxell, Hoare, and Bonney.
To learn the necessary survival skills, the newcomers attended “Happy Camper School” in Antarctica. Field station life itself meant sleeping in tents, driving a six-wheel vehicle across the jagged ice and cooking in an old army shelter known as a Jamesway.
To take their samples, the researchers used gas-powered augers to drill through about 23 feet of ice. Then they used a winch to move sample bottles close to the bottom of the lakes, sometimes passing the bottles through as much as 80 feet of water.
One of Priscu’s many Antarctic projects is a Long-Term Ecological Research project that looks at microbial life in the Dry Valleys lakes. That means he needs regular sampling to follow biological and chemical changes, said Chiuchiolo, a research associate who led the MSU field team. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that most people don’t get,” said Arnold of Sheridan, Wyo. “I’ll always have that interesting answer for, ‘What have you done?’”“I truly loved every moment in Antarctica (excepting those where I woke up in the middle of the night, needing to force myself out of bed to use the restroom),” said Rogers, a native of Albuquerque, N.M. “I think the main reason that I enjoyed the experience so much was because of the team that I worked with.”
Besides the field team, Rogers referred to Priscu (“an absolutely amazing mentor”) and Jill Mikucki (“one of the brightest scientists I’ve met”).
Since returning from Antarctica, Rogers has graduated from MSU and finished an internship with the Idaho National Laboratory. She plans to pursue graduate school, but is looking at research jobs in the meantime.
“I feel that my Antarctic experience has greatly influenced my career goals,” Rogers said. “I started out wanting to pursue land reclamation/mine remediation. However, after experiencing a more focused project in the microbiology of lakes, I have decided that I would enjoy research in microbial ecology.”
Arnold, now a senior at MSU, said, “It’s not easy to get to Antarctica. When people see that on my resume, I think it will give me more advantages over somebody that doesn’t have any field research experience.”