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USU Alumnus makes 8,500-mile trip to Antarctica

Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013

USU researchers in Antarctica

Photo courtesy Hyomin Kim (published in the USU Statesman Online)

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USU Alumnus makes 8,500-mile trip to Antarctica

By Chelsea Hunter in The Utah Statesman, Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Camping in Antarctica can sound impossible. Add setting up and developing high tech sensitive equipment in sub-zero temperatures and it sounds like a movie plot.

A few USU alumni, including Chad Fish from the Space Dynamics Lab, were in Antarctica from Dec. 7 to Jan. 11 as part of a team researching space science at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station.

“Since about 2005, scientists have been looking simultaneously at both hemispheres from the high latitude in Antarctica to watch the electrodynamic interactions that occur between the solar wind and the earth’s dynamic field that couple down to the ionosphere,” said Robert Clauer, the project’s lead scientist.

These scientists are working to understand space weather from the south pole. Clauer put in a proposal to the National Science foundation, and once he won the proposal he was given a $2.39 million grant to begin research.

“Chad was very helpful,” said Hyomin Kim, a post-doctoral scientist from Virginia Tech. “He is a great worker and a great engineer. First of all he is very physically strong, and we have all these scientists and physicists and engineers that go down, but 90 percent of what we do is actually manual labor: snow shoveling, heavy lifting, moving things around.”

The plan is to have six stations up and running within the next three years along the 40 degree magnetic meridian to mirror the magnetic meridian in the Northern Hemisphere where researchers already have magnetometers along the coast of Greenland. Once they have a similar chain in the southern hemisphere in Antarctica, the team can see how the data from the two hemispheres relate.

“For the last couple of years they’ve installed a couple of them, and they already had PG1 and PG2 installed, but this last year something happened to PG2, so we went down and fixed PG2 and then we also installed a new site at PG3,” Fish said. “We were hoping to also install another site at PG4 but we just couldn’t quite get there.”

They work to develop these instruments for simplicity and reliability so they will be able to withstand the elements and harsh temperatures and be able to run for five years autonomously in the field on the Antarctic Plateau.

“With PG2 they found that the system overheated and didn’t survive the winter,” Kim said. “It’s supposed to go into hibernation mode when the sun goes down, and when the sun comes back it’s supposed to wake up automatically, but it didn’t wake up.”

Each station takes four to five days to install and test, so a minimum of four people are brought out in a small airplane to the field to work. One of these people is a mountaineer who has a lot of experience in harsh environments. His responsibilities are to set up camp and makes sure that everyone is safe.

“We would stay in tents everyday, but they never got warm,” Fish said. “It was always cold, so we’d have very thick sleeping bags. You have to drink a lot of water and eat a lot of food because you’re burning a lot of calories, and you have to have a lot of energy to avoid hypothermia.”

The biggest obstacle was the weather due to temperature and unpredictability.

“Working in the weather conditions, it’s not that hard to get out there, but if the weather doesn’t cooperate then you basically have to wait for the weather to be in a state that you can work in and you can get the plane in and out,” fish said.

It’s also very high altitude at 10,000 to 11,000 feet above sea level, where 70 percent of the air is breathable oxygen. Kim said it feels much higher than that because the air is also so cold.

Everybody who goes to the South Pole gets a level of altitude sickness that lasts for a few days to a week with symptoms ranging from motion sickness to having a headache and losing their appetite.

“Most people are able to get over that problem pretty quickly after a couple of days, but it depends on who you are and when you go there,” Kim said. “The symptoms were higher for me than I thought they’d be, but after a while I felt fine.”

Along with physical challenges, there is the mental challenge of realizing how isolated the team is in the middle of nowhere. They have to rely on the government to support them with supplies and food.

“You can look in any direction and it’s just white,” Fish said. “There is nothing. For hundreds of miles, there’s just nothing. There’s no bugs, no animals, no trees, but the air is very clear and it’s very clean. It’s like an off-world experience.”

The population at the South Pole is comprised of about 25 percent women and 75 percent men. The base can house up to 200 people where researchers can prepare gear and where the planes take off.

There is a support crew that runs the cafeterias, performs maintenance and supports the science teams. There are 80 to 100 people there for science who come from all different parts of the world and usually come in teams of four to 10 that all work on instruments, radar and telescopes. Thirty to 40 people take things out to other places in Antarctica and use South Pole as a base.

“Just because the work is challenging doesn’t mean it’s not fun,” Clauer said. “It’s a good experience doing this kind of work. It is challenging and sometimes it’s difficult, but all in all we have a success. It means a lot and you work with a great group of people, so all in all it’s a very fun and positive experience.”

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