While most students and professors prepared for finals and winter break, Austin Canty and Dr. Doug Kowalewski prepared to take a trip to the bottom of the world.
Canty, a senior physical geology major, and Kowalewski, a professor in the earth, environment and physics department ended their first semester of 2014 with a trip to Antarctica together.
The pair left just before Thanksgiving and returned mid-January of this year. Canty and Kowalewski took on the 24-hour daylight and -8 F degree weather on a warm day, in order to map the movement of glaciers for Kowalewski’s newest climate model.
Some pre-trip preparations included acquiring gear approved by the US Antarctica program. The gear, from gloves and face masks to a heavy duty parka, ensured that frostbite and hypothermia kept their distance while the two worked outside in the subzero temperatures Antarctica is famous for.
“I technically overpacked,” Canty said. “I brought a lot of my own cold-weather gear, which in the end I was thankful for. We couldn’t wear the super heavy parkas in the field because we would overheat because we moved around so much.”
The group stayed in tents on the field for most of the trip. When not in the field the group resided in McMurdo, a U.S. Antarctica research center on Ross Island. Getting to McMurdo required multiple connecting flights that finally landed them in New Zealand, where they resided for a week waiting for the okay to head to their final destination.
“At one point we made the 5 hour flight down to McMurdo, but then had to turn back because conditions weren’t good enough to land,” Canty said.
The purpose of the trip was to gain meteorological information to update climate models Kowalewski had formed from his past 5 trips. The data, used to compare temperatures from the ocean side of the ice sheet to those of the inland dry valleys will help the team analyze what is affecting and changing the Antarctic ice most.
Their 12-18 hour days in the field were followed by mostly eating or sleeping. Canty took over 2,000 photos of the trip.
“We spent most of our time in the field researching. My job was a research assistant and to set up 6 climate stations in Taylor Valley that measured temperature, relative humidity, wind, and solar radiation,” Canty said. “Later Doug [Kowalewski] will use the data to update his climate models.”
Taylor Valley, located on the Ross Ice Shelf in western Antarctica, is an asymmetrically shaped valley that was glacially formed. By studying the movement of the ice, climate modelers such as Kowalewski can analyze and potentially predict the rate of ice succession.
“What we plan to do with the climate models is to validate a climate model we’re using that can mimic today’s climate,” said Kowalewski. “If we have the validation that our own models are accurate with today’s climate and with the climate from a million years ago, we then can use it to project out into the future.”
As with traveling anywhere there are positives and negatives. Both agreed that being ‘off the grid’ was their favorite aspect, while missing loved ones gave them second thoughts.
“When you’re there, there are no bills, no internet, no distractions, you’re free to focus solely on science and the research,” said Kowalewski. “You are completely immersed in your work and it helps you analyze and see things better. I find myself noticing things that I didn’t the first day in the field. It’s the only thing on your mind most of the time.”
Climatologists like Kowalewski utilize Antarctica to understand the current stability of our climate. Since the Western ice sheet is more subjective to water temperature, they can study how the eastern ice sheet, which is more sensitive to atmospheric temperature, will be affected if the Western ice sheet were to disappear.
“We’re currently at 400 ppm [for CO2], which is the highest it’s been in probably 15 million years,” said Kowalewski. “Antarctica hasn’t seen this level of greenhouse gas, so we don’t know how it’s going to react. We hope to get a better idea by looking at the models and project the future temperatures of Antarctica.”
Levels like these are dangerously high; a normal level is about 350 ppm. Climatologists like Kowalewski are creating climate models to help project the climate of the future and the effect that climate will have on the planet and its inhabitants if these CO2 levels are not reduced.