Tech Scientists Studying Inner Workings Of Planet Earth From Antarctica

SOCORRO, N.M. February 1, 2011 – Riddles locked deep within the Antarctic ice and underlying continent may hold answers to some of the planet’s most enigmatic questions. New Mexico Tech scientists are among a small army of researchers seeking to unlock the geological and climate workings of Planet Earth from the frozen continent.
Tech graduate student Rob Anthony poses by the snow shelter he created during snow safety training.
The researchers and support staff member at Byrd Surface Camp lives in a tent. During sunny, calm weather, a tent can often reach 80 degrees F inside.
Each seismic station requires both solar power and a large supply of specially designed lithium batteries. Above, scientists test one array of solar panels.
To service the existing seismic stations, researchers must first locate the site. Then, they must dig the station out from under the snow.
A research team deplanes at the site of a seismic station. Sometimes, the pilot can stop within meters of a station. Other times, the crew has to hike up to a kilometer over snow and rocks to reach the site.
Rob Anthony (right) waits to board the military transport to depart from Antarctica.
Thanks to bad weather, the Byrd Camp crew has plenty of down time. Here, Rob Anthony enjoys some sledding.

Professors, graduate students and IRIS PASSCAL staff from Tech are using the latest instruments and new data-reducing tools to unlock some of those secrets through the POLENET program, or Polar Earth Observing Network. The ongoing Antarctic project is part of a new scientific initiative dedicated to observing the polar regions in a changing world.

“One critical question – maybe the most important question in this part of the world – is the long-term or short-term viability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which has about as much ice as in all of Greenland,” said Dr. Rick Aster. “In both Greenland and Antarctica, the ocean is getting warmer and that is affecting interaction between the ice sheet and the ocean, which increases the delivery of land-borne ice to the ocean and contributes to global sea rise.”

Aster is one of the principal investigators on the POLENET project, along with colleagues from The Ohio State University, Penn State and other institutions and science agencies. He is also the chair of the Earth and Environmental Science Department at New Mexico Tech and is the principal investigator of the IRIS PASSCAL Instrument Center, which provides most of the novel Antarctic seismic instrumentation used in POLENET.

“We’re deploying IRIS seismographs that have been souped-up with high-tech polar features,” Aster said. “These instruments can tell us what’s happening in the solid earth below the ice – its strength, geology, and temperature – and thus tell us about the evolution of the tectonic features under the ice.”

IRIS PASSCAL technical staff from Socorro have developed and maintain the world’s most impressive pool of research seismographs, Aster said. To facilitate new research in Antarctic, Greenland, and other polar regions, the Instrument Center has recently established a Polar Program to develop specialized instruments that can operate at -100 degrees F in complete darkness for months during the Antarctic and Arctic winters. The sensing stations also can telemeter data back to the United States via new satellite technologies.

Initially launched in 2007 as part of the two season “International Geophysical Year”, POLENET calls for a permanent deployment of 17 long-term PASSCAL-supported seismic stations, known as the “backbone network,” which dot the continent. Another 80 or so temporary and international partner stations are spread throughout the continent, including a cross-shaped array in west Antarctica specifically designed to study the continent beneath the ice sheet. Each instrument records natural seismic waves created by global earthquakes. By combining data collected at each of the instrument locations, the researchers can create 3-D images of the mantle and crust beneath the ice.

Sounds simple, right? Install seismographs and collect data, then interpret data, revealing a greater understanding of global seismic events, climate and tectonic activity (among other things).

Not so fast. Antarctica is the most inhospitable place on Earth. Humans weren’t meant to live, much less work there. How do you accomplish that sort of science?

Send in the graduate students! And a few brave experts from IRIS PASSCAL.

“Antarctica is the birthplace of storms,” doctoral student Julien Chaput said. “It’s the nastiest place you could go – even on a nice day. Logistically, it’s horrendous. The single biggest challenge is the weather.”

As a native of Canada, Chaput is no stranger to long winters. He earned his bachelor’s in New Brunswick and his master’s in Vancouver. Since coming to New Mexico Tech in 2007, he’s spent three austral summers – that’s winter in the northern hemisphere – in Antarctica, working for one season at the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory and two seasons at Byrd Camp, where POLENET research is based.

The research season lasts only 3 to 4 months – from November to February. The typical routine involves long days of work. Chaput said the first task is to scout locations to place the seismic stations and other POLENET instrumentation, a task that can sometimes take many hours of flying in a helicopter or aircraft. “Sometimes you’ll fly for six hours and find nothing,” he said. “That can be frustrating.”

Stations are installed on remote rocky outcroppings or on the surface of the ice sheet.

Chaput said the installation process is rather straightforward and streamlined: hammer spikes into the rock or dig a large pit in snow create a solid and stable base, hook up batteries and solar panels to the instrument – and GPS to some. He then runs diagnostic tests to make sure the instrument is running optimally and leave the station to operate autonomously.

The west Antarctic stations are installed roughly 50 kilometers apart over the 1,000 kilometer wide ice sheet.

“It’s pretty big,” Chaput said.

Rob Anthony, a first-year doctoral student, recently returned from a one-month assignment on POLENET. His dissertation work will be mostly related to imaging the interior of Mount Erebus, but he thoroughly enjoyed working on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

“The people are awesome,” he said. “Everyone was super nice and had all kinds of interests.”

Anthony learned some mountaineering, skate-skiing, knot-tying and had his share of outdoor experiences.

The POLENET work involved long days in the field. Where Chaput spent most of his time installing stations during the two previous seasons, this year Anthony and his crewmates worked on recovering data from and maintaining the existing stations.

“The first challenge was sometimes just to find the sites,” he said. “We spent two hours digging in the snow and still couldn’t find one of them.”

The stations often get buried in more than six feet of snow. Anthony and his coworkers usually had to dig for 90 minutes to uncover each station. They then swapped out the data loggers and checked the batteries’ health. Specially designed lithium batteries can run these stations uninterrupted for the up to six months of darkness during Antarctic winters. During summer, the instruments run on solar panels and rechargeable batteries.

Other Socorro residents in Antarctica this year include assistant director Tim Parker and senior field engineer Guy Tytgat, both of the PASSCAL Instrument Center. The POLENET team this year also included scientists and engineers from Washington University in St. Louis, Ohio State, Penn State and Central Washington University. They all lived together in the remote Byrd Surface Camp, which is about 3 hours by air from McMurdo Station near the middle of the west Antarctic ice sheet. The team broke into small groups each morning to fly around Antarctica to service the seismic stations.

Chaput said the experience is truly a one-of-a-kind adventure. Antarctic scientists are not allowed to interact with wildlife, but that doesn’t prevent curious penguins from trying to interact with humans near McMurdo station.

“The Adelie penguins are curious and they’ll walk right up to you,” he said. “I had some close encounters at the Adelie rookery near Cape Royds. There were thousands of penguins. It was mating season and they were doing their dance. One guy got himself kicked by a penguin who thought it would be a good idea to grab his trousers and beat him with his wings to impress the ladies.”

Another time, Chaput was about 50 kilometers from the rookery when a young, unattached male became curious.




Cold weather gear is vital for survival in Antarctica, but research veterans list warm socks as the top priority.

The Byrd Camp crew eats well while in Antarctica, thanks to having dedicated chefs.
Antarctic researchers must be prepared to improvise. Every person learns how to prepare meals in the remote areas of the continent.
All photos courtesy of Rob Anthony/New Mexico Tech

“That guy ran about 400 meters to see us,” he said. “He hung out for about 30 minutes, got bored and left.”

Emperor penguins, on the other hand, are curious about humans, but pretend not to care, Chaput said. The Emperors, which are the largest penguins in the world, would approach Chaput, but keep their backs turned.

The seals were the complete opposite. They had no interest in the humans at all.

“There were seals everywhere, hanging out by the cracks in the ice,” he said. “They just roll around and sit there, looking like giant Polish sausages.”

The penguins and seals didn’t keep Chaput and his teammates from installing the sensing stations. “We’re retrieving data that is absolutely unique from instruments previously deployed,” Aster said. “These seismographs have been patiently recording data for a year or more and we’re recovering precious data so scientists like me and my students can analyze it.”

Combining POLENET seismic and precision GPS measurements of Earth will help understand linkages between changes in the ice sheet and global Earth system. Scientists define Earth’s global ice volume in terms of a “mass budget” with ice shrinking and growing in different places around the world. Coordinating satellite measurements with ground-based POLENET measurements will help clarify the ice sheet “budget” of west Antarctica, providing a deeper understanding of how polar ice sheets contribute to changing sea levels and other climate changes around the world.

The unprecedented scale of the POLENET sensor network will allow investigation of systems-scale interactions between the solid Earth, the ice sheets, the oceans and the atmosphere. POLENET data will further make measurements that will enable new studies of the inner Earth, tectonic plates and the Earth’s magnetic field to better understand the critical polar regions of our planet.

When he’s not traipsing around Antarctica deploying the array and dodging penguins, Chaput writes software that combines the data and creates images of the Earth’s deep interior.

Aster said, “Under the ice, West Antarctica is somewhat similar to New Mexico. It has volcanoes – some of which poke up through the ice and others that are buried in ice. Also, it’s a broad continental rift zone where the crust is slowly pulling apart and thinning, like the Rio Grande Rift.”

At a geologic rift, scientists expect to find high levels of heat transfer from the Earth to the ice sheet, which affects ice temperature and the presence of water at the glacial bed, which in turn affects how fast the ice moves. At some areas, the Antarctic Ice Sheet is known to lie atop a vast system of rivers and giant lakes.

“This system has existed for many millions of years, but it’s a fairly recent discovery,” Aster said. “POLENET will allow us to do in Antarctica what we can do elsewhere on Earth with IRIS PASSCAL technology – produce revolutionary images of the planet’s interior, infer its geologic history, as well as improve our understanding of how continents and ice sheets evolve.”

The POLENET project is largely funded by the National Science Foundation; however, 27 other nations are joining the effort.

“We’ve developed a scientific collaboration with foreign nations that operate seismographs in Antarctica,” Aster said. “Because it’s so difficult and so expensive to work in Antarctica, we work hard to partner with everyone who has a scientific interest and who records data.”

All data collected through the POLENET project are stored in an open source IRIS facility in Seattle, where anyone can use the information for a wide range of science and educational purposes.

“We are evangelists for open data and we’ve been effective in getting other nations to buy into this mindset – that everyone is better off when all seismic data are open and free and shared.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech