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Catching Waves: USU Grad Student Studies Mesosphere from South Pole

Thursday, Mar. 07, 2013

USU grad student Jon Pugmire at the South Pole
USU grad student Jon Pugmire visited the South Pole as part of a physics research team studying mesospheric waves above the polar surface.
penguins at Antarctica's Ross Island
Pugmire captured this photo of Adélie penguins at Antarctica's Ross Island. Visitors to the region may observe, but not approach, the threatened species, he says.

Seasoned travelers often insist “getting there is half the fun,” which may reflect the eternal optimism recommended for the unexpected bumps and detours of international travel. The philosophy served Utah State University graduate student Jon Pugmire well after an eye-opening trip to the South Pole.


“I think I could beat anyone but an astronaut in a ‘where’s-the-coldest-and-most-remote-place-you’ve-ever-been’ contest,” says Pugmire, a doctoral student in atmospheric physics.


The preparation and logistics of the Ogden, Utah, native’s nearly month-long Antarctic journey, which began Jan. 11, do indeed sound like those of an astronaut.


“I was required to go through a battery of medical tests before I even left Utah,” says Pugmire, who completed a bachelor’s degree from USU in 2010. “From here, we flew to Los Angeles, then Australia and on to New Zealand for a safety briefing and to receive our cold weather gear: heavy parka, snow pants, ultra warm gloves and hats and ‘bunny boots.’”


Pugmire traveled with USU research physicist Dominique Pautet, who was making his fourth trip to “The Ice” (as veteran Antarctic travelers refer to the frigid continent.) The two are working with USU physics professor Mike Taylor on a National Science Foundation-funded project initiated in 2006.


From New Zealand, the Aggies boarded a C-130 military transport plane for a 2,000-mile trip to McMurdo Research Station on the Antarctic coast. From there, the scientists hopped a smaller ‘Hercules’ plane, equipped with skis for an ice landing, for the three-hour flight to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.


“Once you land at the South Pole, the pilots don’t even turn off the plane’s engines,” Pugmire says. “Supplies are quickly unloaded. Passengers making the return trip are loaded — along with garbage from the station — and the plane is off again.”


Pugmire and Pautet were “on the Ice” to inspect USU’s Advanced Mesospheric Temperature Mapper, known as the “AMTM” for short, which captures images of gravity waves some 50 miles above the polar surface. Designed by Taylor and his team and built by USU’s Space Dynamics Laboratory, the cylindrical camera pokes through a round hole, covered with a clear, glass dome, in the station’s roof. Taylor and Pautet installed the camera in January 2010.


“We replaced a computer connected to the camera, collected camera data for analysis and trained a new research associate hired by the NSF who will maintain experiments from a number of institutions, including ours,” Pugmire says.


The physicists are trying to determine where the gravity waves, which emanate like ripples of water in a pond, come from and how they propagate. Measurements of these waves through the mesosphere could reveal clues about global weather disturbances.


During his free time, Pugmire toured the two-level, 65,000-square-foot station, inhabited by about 150 people in the summer and a skeleton crew of 50 in the winter. Situated atop the Earth’s axis, the building is mounted on hydraulic columns that float upon a shifting continental ice sheet several miles thick.


“It’s like a space station,” Pugmire says. “Water, supplied by melted ice, is a precious commodity. Residents are allowed no more than two showers and one load of laundry per week.”


Outside the station, temperatures dip into bone-chilling double digits well below zero Fahrenheit. Pugmire managed to capture a few souvenir photos at the ceremonial South Pole, flanked with flags of the station’s participating nations, as well as shots at the geographic South Pole, which must be periodically adjusted to accommodate the shifting ice.


“It’s the coldest, driest and windiest place in the world and also has the world’s most pristine air,” he says. “And everyone who’s there is there to support scientific research.”


Related links:


Contact: Jonathan Pugmire, mtgpugs@gmail.com

Writer/Publicist: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, maryann.muffoletto@usu.edu

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