Exploring Science At The End Of The Earth

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Tehnuka Ilanko, graduate student, Volcanology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, U.K.

Kayla Iacovino, graduate student, Volcanology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, U.K.

Chris Linder, author, "Science on Ice: Four Polar Expeditions," Seattle, Wash.

Every year thousands of scientists visit Antarctica. Some study the gas plume from the active volcano, Mount Erebus. Others map the ever-changing ice caves. But they all face the same challenges of working on extreme terrain. Two researchers and a photojournalist discuss how research is done on the frozen continent.

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. It may be winter up north, but down in Antarctica, the summer fun has just begun, fun of course if you're a scientist or an explorer. What could be more exciting than studying endless, beautiful blue ice, unique plant and animal life, the ebb and flow of towering glaciers?

And so, each year, thousands of researchers converge on the frozen continent with summer research season that kicks off in November. A summer, of course, in Antarctica is not like one in most places. It's got a few challenges. You have to not mind sleeping in tents with 75 mile-per-hour winds or snowmobiling across ice with dangerous crevasses there or looking into the mouth of a steaming volcano.

Yeah, Antarctic and South Pole exploration is - also celebrating its 100-year anniversary because 100 years ago this minute, two exploration parties were racing to the South Pole. I'm talking about the Amundson and Scott expeditions.

Joining us to talk about science in the southernmost point of the Earth are a couple of researchers and a photojournalist who has spent some time in Antarctica. And let me introduce Kayla Iacovino, she's also a Ph.D. student at Cambridge. She's studying volcanology and petrology, has been sharing her experiences at Mount Erebus right there in Antarctica on her blog. You might remember a year ago she was on our show at sciencefriday.com. Welcome back.

KAYLA IACOVINO: Hi, Ira, good to be back.

FLATOW: Good to have you back. Chris Linder is the author of "Science on Ice: Four Polar Expeditions." Chris Linder has teamed up with four science writers to create a really richly illustrated book. It's loaded with gorgeous photographs, which looks at how science gets done at the poles. And Chris joins us from Seattle. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CHRIS LINDER: Thanks a lot, Ira, it's great to be here.

FLATOW: We're trying to get in touch with Tehnuka Ilanko, and she's a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. She is in Antarctica and near Mount Erebus in a phone booth. We're trying to get through to her, but you know how technology works, sending a long-distance call. Well, we'll keep putting quarters into the phone and see if we can get through.

But let begin with you, Kayla. Tell us about what's going on in Antarctica compared to what you were doing last year?

IACOVINO: Well, some of the same studies are continuing this year. A lot of the volcanic monitoring that I was - a part of my group is still happening. So, on Mount Erebus there, just so your listeners have a bit of background, Mount Erebus is a very active volcano located right near McMurdo Station, which is the largest Antarctic base.

It's an American base, and they give us basically support and then send everything and all the supplies and helicopter us up to the volcano, where we live for about a month and monitor all kinds of things, like look at the volcanic gases that are coming out of the volcano, looking at the thermal properties of the lava lake, which is in the volcano.

There's also people studying the ice caves, which are on Mount Erebus, and they're formed when the hot, volcanic gases from Erebus move through the ice on top of the volcano and carve out these beautiful caverns with some gorgeous crystals, ice crystals in them.

And there's also people looking at infrasound and seismic to study the inner workings of the volcano, as well.

FLATOW: And Chris Linder, of course, you were there yourself, taking pictures at McMurdo there.

LINDER: That's right.

FLATOW: And the gorgeous ice caves. There's a great picture in your book of - is it you? I can't remember, someone with a laptop inside an ice cave.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LINDER: That was my writer, Hugh Powell, and that was actually taken during what's called happy camper training, which everyone who goes into the field in Antarctica has to go through, and it's basically an introduction in how not to die in Antarctica.

And so, we were reporting for the entire time we were in Antarctica doing daily dispatches posted to a website, and we said, well, we would love to continue doing the reporting during happy camper training, and so we brought our gear along. And for that night that we spent in what's called a quinsy, a little ice cave, we typed out and sent a dispatch.

FLATOW: Wow, and I know things are a lot different these days, Kayla. There's actually a land line that we're trying to get through to. When I was there many years ago, there was only a short-wave radio, and you were lucky to get through on that.

IACOVINO: Yeah, we're actually surprisingly well-connected at McMurdo and even at Erebus, which is considered a remote camp. I mean, we had Wi-Fi up there. I could get the - I could actually - the Wi-Fi was coming from our hut, and we sleep in tents outside of the hut. I could actually be on the Internet on my iPhone in my tent when I was there.

So, I mean, we do have a lot of really good connectivity up there. It's not as remote as you would think.

FLATOW: Last time when you were talking to us from Mount Erebus and looking down into the mouth of the volcano, a year later, have you noticed, are there any changes from what you saw a year ago?

IACOVINO: Oh definitely. I've been - as you know, I'm in the States right now, I'm not down in the field, but I've been correlating all the reports coming in from there and posting them on the blog. And it looks like the lava lake has dropped a couple of meters in height, and it's also become a bit smaller. So it might have crusted over a bit.

And the weather has been completely different there this year. It's a lot wetter, and so the plume, the gas that's coming out of the volcano, becomes thicker and obscure the lava lakes. So they haven't actually had that many good views into the lake.

We had a really good year last year and got some really amazing shots.

FLATOW: National Science Foundation funds a lot of research that goes on in Antarctica, and they send them all down on these big airplanes. Chris, what was your experience like on one of those planes?

LINDER: Yeah, it's a pretty incredible opportunity to be able to travel on this huge Air Force plane. What's funny is when you load up in Christchurch, New Zealand, that's where you leave, it's summer. So it's 85 degrees, there's cicadas humming, and you've got the smell of flowers.

And early in the morning, it's not even light yet, you get into this belly of this aircraft wearing a humongous red parka, these ridiculous-looking white boots, wind pants, and so you're just sweating freely as you get into this aircraft.

And you never know what's going to be inside when you get in. There could be an eight-foot-wide drill running down the middle of the aircraft or four vehicles or a whole row of seats.

And you get in there, and you're kind of whisked up into the air, and it's usually a five-hour trip, and it's kind of disorienting because there's only about, you know, one or two little portholes that you can peek through to see this beautiful environment unfolding underneath you.

And when you land, you land on the sea ice outside of McMurdo Station and step out, and all of sudden you've gone from summer in New Zealand to summer in Antarctica, which is a very different thing. There's no smells at all. You get hit with this dry kind of chilly wind when you're out on the runway, maybe 15 degrees Fahrenheit, maybe colder out there. And you realize that the thing you need most is sunscreen and sunglasses because it's usually this bright sun that's just beaming at you.

FLATOW: It's also - you describe McMurdo as big, sprawling, what looks like a mining colony.

LINDER: Yeah, it's - when you get there you realize just how much research is going on down there during the summer months. The thing that I will never forget is this beeping sound of these loaders, whenever they're backing up, of course, they're making a beeping sound just like any truck in the United States.

And these vehicles are constantly on the move, carrying equipment, food to the helicopter pad, back up to these - one of the 47 buildings that are - that comprise McMurdo Station. And so it's designed to kind of get researchers their safety courses and to get them their gear and get them out in the field, so they can get to do science as soon as possible. But it's a lot of work.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're now going to see if we can bring in somebody live from Antarctica. She's a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. Tehnuka Ilanko, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

TEHNUKA ILANKO: Thank you.

FLATOW: Tell us what you're studying there. What's your day like in Antarctica?

ILANKO: Well, I'm studying gases coming off of the plume in the lava lake off Mount Erebus. So basically I've got an instrument up at the crater rim, and it measures the infrared radiation that's basically heat that's coming off the lake. But since the heat is passing through the gases, some of it gets absorbed, and by looking at the spectrum of energy that's remaining and modeling what's been absorbed, we can figure out what gases are found and in what quantities.

FLATOW: And why is it so important for you to study Mount Erebus? It is one of the few active volcanoes on the Earth, is it not?

ILANKO: Yeah, it's one of only three with long-lived active lava lake, which basically represents a window into (unintelligible) system. That's quite an unusual opportunity, and surprisingly enough, Antarctica is one of the best places to study this because the other two are in Ethiopia and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mount Erebus is the most accessible.

FLATOW: And not only that, you have a lot more sunlight during the day to do your work.

ILANKO: We do, we've got 24 hours of daylight.

FLATOW: Yeah, and does that represent a challenge to sleeping or running the rest of your life, all that daylight?

ILANKO: It does. Some people find it really difficult to sleep. Some people find it very difficult to stop working. So by the end of the season, we're all on quite unusual schedules.

FLATOW: And how will you measure your success over there?

ILANKO: Well, it's good to have everything up and running. There are a bunch of different projects going on. So as long as we're getting in good data that we can process, then that's an achievement for us. At the moment, we're working on trying to get some instruments running over the winter, which would be a really big achievement. We'd get - instead of just one month of data, we've been getting 12 months.

FLATOW: So you think it could stay by itself and run in the dark, the six months of darkness there and that cold?

ILANKO: So the idea was, you know, everything would be automated. We would have a wireless link that sends everything back to McMurdo, and we'll be able to operate the instruments remotely. (unintelligible) have to be up here.

FLATOW: Well, I know it's difficult for you talk to talk to us, but I want to wish you good luck and - with your research, and thank you for taking the time to be with us, and happy new year to you.

ILANKO: Thank you. Same to you. Have a good afternoon.

FLATOW: Good afternoon to you. Tehnuka Ilanko is a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. She's studying volcanology and gas - geochemistry. And currently, she's right there at the base of Mount Erebus. Kayla Iacovino, could you tell us where she was speaking from? Was it a phone booth? Where do you have a phone booth at the bottom of a mountain in Antarctica?

IACOVINO: Well, it's - we do have a landline up there. I believe there's one that's connected through that adjacent New Zealand base there. And there might be also a landline that goes back to McMurdo. So - or it's possible, of course, that she was doing what I was doing last year, which was using the satellite phone, although that's not as reliable of a connection.

FLATOW: Yeah. We're very lucky to get it. Chris Linder is author of "Science on Ice: Four Polar Expeditions." You only talked about one expedition to Antarctica, but you had other polar expeditions. And I was very intrigued by your Greenland experience, and you're talking about these huge ice-melt lakes that exist in Greenland.

LINDER: Yeah. That is probably my second-favorite place on Earth, after the Cape Crozier penguin colony down in Antarctica, because it's just such a unique environment. You've got meltwater that's forming on the Greenland ice sheet and collecting into these depressions on the ice to form these turquoise-blue jewels, basically, is what they look like from the air, from the helicopter.

And the researchers there are interested in what happens to that water in these lakes when it suddenly disappears. What they're noticing from the satellite record is that one day there will be a lake there four kilometers long, you know, containing millions of gallons of water, and the next day, it would be totally gone.

And so they were putting instruments around the lakes to try to determine when that water disappears, you know, through cracks in the bottom, just like pulling the plug in a bathtub. What does it do to the ice?

FLATOW: Wow. So all that is going down below the ice and lubricating the ice, possibly, and letting it - the glaciers slide?

LINDER: Yeah, that's what they found out. By using these precision - very precise GPS recorders placed around the lake, they could tell exactly how that ice sheet was responding. And just like grease on a railroad track, it makes that ice sheet slip a little bit faster when that lake actually drains and goes through a thousand meters of ice all the way to the bottom.

FLATOW: Wow. Talking about Antarctic research this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Chris Linder and Kayla Iacovino. Our number: 1-800-989-8255.

Kayla, what do you miss about not being down there this season?

IACOVINO: Oh, God, there's so much. There's so much in this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IACOVINO: I'm really hoping I can go back next season. But just - I think Antarctica is the most beautiful place in the world. It had some of the most incredible land forms and ice forms that I've ever seen.

FLATOW: Yeah.

IACOVINO: And really - I mean, even working - you know, I miss the people, as well. Working there in a group, we were 12 of us for a month in a remote hut, where you didn't really see anyone else except for maybe the occasional helicopter pilot if they came in for a coffee or something.

And so you kind of get to be a pretty tight-knit group, and that's a really unique environment to work in. And, I mean, it's just - there's so many amazing things about it: exploring the ice caves, going up to the crater rim and watching explosions. It's just amazing.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's get a phone call or two if we can. Let's go to Leslie in - is it Rawlins, Wyoming?

LESLIE: Yes, it is.

FLATOW: Hi, there. Welcome.

LESLIE: I just wanted to say how wonderful it is to hear some scientist live from Antarctica. Last winter, I had the most amazing experience. I accompanied a team of researchers from the University of Washington down to Antarctica with a program called PolarTREC.

And the point of this organization, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, is to embed teachers with research teams to help bring science back to students around the world and get them intrigued in the science that's going on and hopefully entice them to go into different science fields when they get out of school.

And I was located in three different remote camps along the Beardmore Glacier in the Transantarctic Mountains. This was exciting for me, not only with the type of science we were doing and seeing how science is conducted out in the field, but the Beardmore Glacier was also very historically important because this was the route that Scott took in his quest to be the first to reach the South Pole, actually, 100 years ago.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LESLIE: So this was a really exciting experience for me, and I just wanted to share that.

FLATOW: Thank you very much, Leslie. Yeah. It's a life-changing experience, is it not?

LESLIE: Definitely so. I'm still trying to figure out a way that I can get back down there.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, you're not going to get to the same spot, but, you know, there are cruise ships and everything that go to the peninsula from South America. So maybe you can get closer.

LESLIE: Well...

FLATOW: Oop, I just lost her. Yeah. It does change your life, Kayla, does it not?

IACOVINO: Oh, definitely. Definitely. It's interesting you're talking about the cruise ships. There was one or two that came through McMurdo while we were there, and when we first arrived there, giving us a tour of some of the laboratory spaces and telling us about when these cruise ships would come through. And they kind of take them on tours through McMurdo, and almost are - and here are some scientists in their natural environment. It almost felt like being, you know, in a zoo or something. It was really funny.

FLATOW: Next stop, penguins.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IACOVINO: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a - I can't believe a cruise ship actually has gotten as far as McMurdo. Things have changed a bit since I was there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IACOVINO: Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. 1-800-989-8255. We're going to take a break and talk more with Chris Linder, author of "Science on Ice: Four Polar Expeditions" and Kayla Iacovino, she's a PHD student a Cambridge. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the challenges scientists face while studying everything, from volcanoes to ice caves in Antarctica with my guests Kayla Iacovino, a PHD student at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., Chris Linder, author of "Science on Ice: Four Polar Expeditions." Our number: 1-800-989-8255. This is - we were talking about a polar explorer, and this being the 100th anniversary of the - Scott and Amundsen racing into the South Pole.

Chris, it's hard, when you're down there, to avoid the fact that you're in a very old place. It's almost like a living museum with the shacks there sort of frozen in time, and yet - and all this new research going on.

LINDER: It is. And in some cases, those buildings are side by side. At McMurdo station, Scott's Discovery Hut is within the site of McMurdo station, the modern U.S. station there. And if you go out to Cape Royds, which is out on the sea ice, you know, just a short snowmobile ride away from McMurdo, there's Shackleton's hut, built in 1908, sitting, you know, probably a quarter mile away from the penguin researcher's hut which is there now. And so the - you know, history is all around you when you're down there, and those monuments are lovingly restored by the New Zealanders who take care of them.

And walking in there, you see pictures on the walls that Shackleton and his party brought down there, boots stuffed with straw. Everything looks like they just got up from a meal and walked out and never came back.

FLATOW: And it's interesting, because I was reading in your book about finding a penguin that had been on a table, open for dissection, and I swear that must be the same penguin I saw 30 years ago still on that table.

LINDER: Yeah. You'll see, you know, seals stacked outside that they had used for food for their dogs. All these things are monuments. And because of the Antarctic Treaty, nothing is to be touched or removed. And so, you know, as you're walking around a penguin colony like Cape Royds, you'll actually see little pieces of wood that were - have been broken off by the wind from the dog kennels or other things that Shackleton built, and those are historic debris. And they're not to be touched or picked up or altered in any way.

FLATOW: You know, we talk about the research that's going on there. But there's a lot of astronomy research going on there, too, in Antarctica, isn't there? And stuff we don't hear very much about, the sun, because there are six months of sunlight, you can, you know, look at the sun. I think even in that neutrino experiment that we're talking about, weren't they - wasn't it going through the Earth and coming out in Antarctica someplace?

LINDER: Right. I think that was being built at South Pole Station, so, you know, another flight away to the south from McMurdo.

FLATOW: And that is one - yeah. And that is one of the most coveted trips, is it not, to the South Pole? Because very few scientists, even though they may spend decades there, ever get to the South Pole.

LINDER: Yeah. And I haven't been there myself, but I'd love to go.

FLATOW: Yeah. Kayla, do they talk about that a lot?

IACOVINO: Oh, definitely. That's one - a couple of the hotspots if you're in McMurdo, it's going to Erebus, and everywhere else, it's going to the South Pole.

FLATOW: It's like - actually, count myself among the very lucky to have been there all those years ago. And I remember scientists being very jealous of me because...

IACOVINO: Did you make it to the pole?

FLATOW: I got to the pole. I have pictures from...

IACOVINO: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: It was, of course - there was a different pole station there. When I was there in 1979, they had just built a new pole station. That is already gone. There's a brand-spanking new one near. But it is a place. And it's really interesting that you talk - both of you, and I'm sure you can both testify to this. Chris, you talk about how unforgiving the weather is down there. You make a mistake, you've had it.

LINDER: Yeah. It can change rapidly. And even a year ago, I was coming off of the Nathaniel B. Palmer, an icebreaker, in about mid-February. And we were among the last in McMurdo that were getting ready to leave. And after we left, I'd seen this news reports that a Norwegian party had come down, kind of unannounced, and they were going to take some four-wheelers down to the South Pole without permission from anybody.

Their ship - a storm brewed up, came out of the south with a terrific windstorm, sank their ship, I think killed two of them onboard, and a couple of more had to be rescued and brought back to New Zealand by the U.S. staff that was remaining down there. So even though, you know, our ability to handle the environment has gotten a lot better, it still is not a place to be toyed with.

FLATOW: And that's why you have so much respect for those polar explorers of 100 years ago. They had hardly any of the modern clothing and technology that we have. And they - some of them spent years down there at a time.

Yeah. And did even more epic things than we're doing now, like the trek that one of the parties made in the middle of winter to go get an emperor penguin egg at Cape Crozier, you know, braving, you know, 70 mile - 70 degree below zero temperatures trekking along in boots filled with straw and, you know, sleeping bags that would freeze overnight from their sweat and they'd have to, you know, press their feet into them to warm them up.

Kayla, are you going back anytime soon?

IACOVINO: I hope so. I have my fingers crossed to get down there next season.

FLATOW: And still studying Mount Erebus?

IACOVINO: Yup, yup. Going to be taking more samples and taking more measurements.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And what exactly, you know, fascinates you about this?

IACOVINO: Oh, there's so many aspects to it. I mean, just my volcanological, you know, interest in it - purely that, but also just the fact that it's - this volcano in Antarctica, it's this whole fire and ice thing going on and - it's just - like I said, it's just a beautiful place. And Erebus is a really unique volcano. It's got some really interesting magmas that come out of it. I'm interested in the chemistry of the magma, so that's a big thing for me. And also the active lava lake, I mean, going into an active volcano is an amazing thing as it is, but to go to one that you can actually see the inside of it at the surface is pretty incredible.

FLATOW: Let's see if we can get a phone call or two in here. Matt in Cincinnati. Hi, Matt.

MATT: Hello, and thanks for taking my call. Great show.

FLATOW: Thank you. Go ahead.

MATT: Hey, I had question. It seems to me last year about this time, there was - you had a story about, I believe, it was some Russians drilling through about two miles of ice on top of a lake down there. I was wondering what ever became of it.

FLATOW: Chris, any idea what happened?

LINDER: I think - from what I heard, they got close and then had to pull - had to abort at the last minute because they had run out of time. But that was a big deal because no one had ever broken through into that lake before.

FLATOW: Chris, there's a lot of ice to drill through, isn't it?

LINDER: Yeah, I can't remember how thick it was, but it took all season to get as far as they did.

FLATOW: And a lot of - drill goes very slowly. The ice is very tough, and you run out of time, right? Because you're not staying out there in the middle of the darkness.

LINDER: Yeah, at the end of the end of the season, you got to go.

IACOVINO: Weren't there some contamination issues as well?

LINDER: Yeah, that was - I think was a huge concern because there's all these chemical lubricants that are used to keep the drill from freezing, and once you tap into a previously untapped environment, it's going to be forever changed. It'll never be the exact same as when - before you drilled into it.

FLATOW: With all that sunlight down there, remember it's - I'm asking this over 30 years ago to people - why don't you have, you know, solar energy, that kind of stuff to tap into generation there? Is there any more thought to that going on? Or even at field stations.

IACOVINO: They're doing more of that now.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LINDER: Yeah, we use them.

IACOVINO: You know, at Mount Erebus, we have wind and solar power, but we have a backup generator as well, just in case.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Norman in Monroe, North Carolina. Hi, Norman.

NORMAN: Good afternoon, folks. I'm listening on to a station WFAE in Charlotte. I have two questions, and it's kind of strange one. First, how to keep your potable water from freezing? And second, when you have a call for nature, how do handle it in sub-arctic temperatures?

IACOVINO: That is so funny. That is - I have to say, that is probably the number one question I get asked is, how do you pee?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORMAN: Yeah.

IACOVINO: And especially if we're living in a tent, and you need to go the bathroom in the middle of the night, obviously, you don't want to have to get up and put on all your gear, you know, long underwear, wind pants, parka, gloves, hat, everything because that would just take too long. You'd, you know, pee your pants before you got outside. So what we do is the United States Antarctic Program issues they very own pee bottles, which is basically a wide-mouth Nalgene bottle, and you learned very quickly how to hover above your sleeping bag - men and women - how to hover above your sleeping bag and pee into a bottle in your tent at night.

FLATOW: Well, I hate to end the program on that note.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: But it is part of the experience, right? I remember being there and it's all part of that experience. And I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today. And have a happy New Year.

IACOVINO: Oh, thank you so much. And you too.

LINDER: And thanks a lot, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Kayla Iacovino is a Ph.D. student in University of Cambridge in the U.K. Chris Linder is author of "Science on Ice: Four Polar Expeditions." If you like to see some stunning pictures of Antarctica, surf over to our website at sciencefriday.com. We have a few up there, but the book itself is worth buying.

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