Research Team to Collect Ice Samples in South Pole Expedition
There’s nothing quite like going into the deep freeze to learn more about planet Earth.
That’s where Jihong Cole-Dai, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at South Dakota State University, and graduate students Drew Budner and Dave Ferris will find themselves when they head to Antarctica in December.
In a collaborative research project with the University of California-San Diego and funded by the National Science Foundation, they will collect ice cores from the South Pole to examine the ice chemical composition that contains clues about the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere. Cole-Dai’s research has centered on how volcanic eruptions during the last 1,000 years have affected the atmosphere. This new project expands on past research results. “We will again be looking at what happens to the atmosphere when volcanoes go off, but this time we want to find what happens to the oxygen chemistry,” said Cole-Dai.
“Chemistry involving oxygen is the basis of life on Earth today,” he added. “In the very beginning, there was no oxygen in the atmosphere. We know that by looking at rocks that were formed billions of years ago. With this research project, we might be able to say something about how oxygen got into the atmosphere.” Chemicals from the atmosphere end up buried in polar snow and can be retrieved with ice cores, which “can give you very detailed information about the atmosphere,” explained Cole-Dai. “Volcanoes put gases into the atmosphere and they circle the globe for a long time. The gases, through reactions with oxygen, eventually turn into tiny sulfuric acid droplets. In Antarctica, the volcanic sulfuric acid becomes part of the snow that falls and accumulates year after year.”
The South Pole field team, consisting of the three SDSU researchers and two drilling engineers from the University of Wisconsin, plans to collect 400 meters, or a quarter-of-a-mile long, of four-inch ice cylinders. The 3,000 pounds of ice cores will be packaged in insulated boxes, shipped while frozen to a port in California, and trucked to the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver, Colo., before making their way to the Ice Core and Environmental Chemistry Laboratory (ICECL) at SDSU for chemical analysis.
After complete physical and dental checkups in Brookings, Cole-Dai, Budner and Ferris will depart in December for a National Science Foundation facility in New Zealand in the South Pacific. There, they will be outfitted with extreme cold apparel that includes parkas, windbreakers, thermal underwear, socks, gloves, double insulated boots, goggles and ski masks. Each person will carry personal gear of more than 30 pounds while in Antarctica.
From New Zealand, they will board a military cargo plane for an eight-hour flight to McMurdo Station, a base on the southern edge of Antarctica that serves as the starting point for their expedition.
At McMurdo, the group will receive extensive training on how to live and work in a snow and ice environment. The training includes a survival course, which covers camping on ice, learning to build an igloo for emergency shelter, rescuing from falls into cracks in ice and instructions on radio communication skills.
From McMurdo, the team will fly on a skied cargo plane 900 miles to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, where they will set up camp a few miles from the station and spend two weeks drilling and packaging ice cores.
December and January will be Antarctica’s summer, but temperatures at the South Pole will still reach 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Toss in 20- to 30-mile-per-hour winds, and conditions will indeed be harsh at the camp. “Every inch of the body has to be covered, just a little exposure can mean frost bite and dehydration very fast,” said Cole-Dai. “You have to carry water bottles all the time and they have to be close to the body or the water will freeze.”
Also in the mix is working and living at 10,000 feet above sea level, which is the thickness of the polar ice sheet. “We plan to work as fast and quick as we can so we don’t stay out too long,” noted Cole-Dai. “The wind, cold temperature and high altitude can really take its toll and you feel it. People who climb know what I’m talking about.”
This will be Cole-Dai’s third trip to Antarctica so he knows what to expect. But for Budner of Alamosa, Colo., and Ferris of Brookings, going to the South Pole was not what they had in mind when they came to SDSU to pursue doctoral degrees in chemistry. Still, when Cole-Dai approached them about going with him, there wasn’t much hesitation. “It’s a great opportunity for me to spend time in a place not many people get to go to,” said Budner. “Even the experience of camping on the ice is a unique situation that not many people have.”
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Ferris. “I’m looking forward to it. The closer it gets, the more I get into it. I’ve done a lot of reading on the history behind Antarctica and the South Pole. That makes it more interesting, too, knowing what others have gone through in the last 100 years and how it’s changed just trying to get there.”
The students are conducting research related to ice cores. Ferris will try to measure the amount of man-made pollutants in South Pole snow. Budner will test new analytical techniques to measure inorganic chemicals in ice cores.
They are already preparing for the long journey, learning everything about the South Pole, and working out to be physically fit for the harsh climate and hard work ahead. “The one thing that worries me is that it’s going to be sunlight the whole time,” confessed Budner. “Trying to sleep in bright light concerns me a little. The cold weather shouldn’t be too bad, though. We should be well prepared for that.”
“It’s going to be challenging and even a little scary, too,” admitted Ferris. “It’s flat and very cold, with two miles of snow beneath you. Wearing five layers of clothing will be an interesting experience in itself.”