IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
This hour we're headed to a place with deserts that haven't seen rain in millions of years, where lakes are trapped underground, where organisms have learned to live on and even in ice many feet thick. We're talking about Antarctica, a place that - I was there in 1979 - changed my life forever and still has. Antarctica may be the highest and driest, the windiest and coldest continent on Earth. But it's a hotbed of research this time of the year because every austral summer, and that's our winter, scientists go to Antarctica to conduct research that cannot really be done anywhere else in the world.
For instance, a new kind of telescope uses the ice, a mile-thick ice sheet, to capture elusive neutrinos, and understanding these particles could help unlock mysteries about the nature of dark energy and dark matter. The National Science Foundation funds lots of research down there, including the facilities, and it has nearly completed its new Amundsen-Scott base at the South Pole. It's a magnificent looking structure. When I was down there, there was a geodesic dome which has since gone, well, it's on its last legs. And there's a spiffy new place that they're putting up down there.
So this hour we're going to talk about what lies ahead for science on the ice. You know, almost every month we hear of a new giant iceberg that has broken off the continent in this age of global warming. Of course, climate research and ice research is very big in Antarctica. Let's talk about, and we will talk about, what kind of climate-change research is going on down there.
And, you know, despite the cute penguin movies about Antarctica, penguins inhabit only a fraction of the coastal area. There are no penguins at the South Pole. They don't live - it's 800 miles to the closest water. But there's plenty of wildlife beneath the sea on the coast. It's a virtual feeding ground for migrating whales, and you have seals, and you'll even see birds in Antarctica, and in some places flowering shrubs.
We're also going talk about the difficulties of working and living exposed to the elements. How do scientists cope with hurricane-force winds, cold that can get to 100 degrees below zero and winter darkness that can last for six months for some of the very few who winter-over down there? And darkness and isolation can lead to depression, which does occur with people who stay, who winter-over in Antarctica. But this time we're going to concentrate on the sunlight that's the start of winter in Antarctica. And if you'd like to talk with us, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. As always, you can surf over to our Web site at ScienceFriday.com.
Let me introduce my guests. Scott Borg is the director of the Division of Antarctic Scientists at the NSF. He joins us from our studios in Washington. Welcome to the program.
Dr. SCOTT BORG (Director, Division of Antarctic Scientists, National Science Foundation): Thank you, Ira. It's a pleasure to be here.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Donal Manahan is a professor of biological sciences at University of Southern California. He has worked in Antarctica for over 20 years and he even has a peak named after him. That's an elite crowd of folks. He joins us from the studios of KUSC in Los Angeles. Welcome to the program.
Professor DONAL MANAHAN (Biological Sciences, University of Southern California): Thank you, Ira. Delighted to be here today.
FLATOW: Thank you. Before we talk with these two gentlemen we're going to go live, as they say, to Antarctica. Paul Mayewski is the director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. He has been traveling across Antarctica for the last 40 days collecting ice cores as part of the International Trans-Antarctic Scientific Expedition. And he and his team have began, well, they began the trip over a month ago with 5,000 pounds of food, 200 rolls of toilet paper and lots of other supplies. And Dr. Mayewski joins us via satellite phone from somewhere in East Antarctic Plateau. Dr. Mayewski, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Dr. PAUL MAYEWSKI (Director, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine): Thank you very much.
FLATOW: Can you give us an idea, let's say, in reference to McMurdo Station or the South Pole, where you are in Antarctica?
Dr. MAYEWSKI: We're at about 80 degrees south, roughly 300 miles south of McMurdo Station, up on the East Antarctic Plateau at about 7500 feet.
FLATOW: And it's all ice below your feet.
Dr. MAYEWSKI: Absolutely. We have about 6,000 feet of ice beneath us, and of course we're standing on a continent that's one-and-half times the size of the United States. So this is one big ice cube, over.
FLATOW: Tell us what your mission is. You are collecting ice cores as you o along on this expedition?
Dr. MAYEWSKI: Yes, we are. ITASE is part of actually a 20-nation program that was organized several years ago, and the U.S. component of ITASE has been focusing in very large areas of Antarctica. Our primary goal is to understand the climate of the last 200 to 1,000 years over Antarctica and use it as a perspective for understanding future climates. And the primary reason for doing this is that we have very, very short records collected by humans from Antarctica and from very few places.
So unlike the Northern Hemisphere where the records may go back 100 years, we're lucky to go back 50 years in a few places. And as we've discovered in the last few years, Antarctica is an extremely important component of the global climate system. So we're here trying to effectively recover buried weather stations using ice cores, and then using remote sensing tools, such as radar and satellites, to understand the thickness of the ice, how much ice has accumulated over the years. For example, the last few decades, whether it's increased, decreased, and a variety of other things.
FLATOW: How far back in time can you go with these ice cores?
Dr. MAYEWSKI: These ice cores are really quite remarkable. The longest records come from Antarctica and extend back close to a million years. There's every expectation that we may find sites in the future that will allow us to reconstruct climates going back several million years using ice cores.
Our project right now is focusing much more on the, as I mentioned earlier, the last 200 to 1,000 years, and from many sites over Antarctica. Because there's a tremendous amount of climate variability over Antarctica, variability between the coast, where you get massive marine storms, to the inland areas which are dominated by high elevation and gravity-driven winds that go towards the coast. So there's a lot of variability on this very large continent, and we would like to be able to understand it and its implications for future climate change.
FLATOW: How do you learn about the past climate? What is in the ice that tells you what the climate was like a thousand, a hundred years ago?
Dr. MAYEWSKI: Ice cores are probably the most robust tool that we have for understanding past climate, particularly when you can connect them to an existing record of, for example, temperature or storm patterns. The ice cores hold within them literally anything that's in the atmosphere - past gas concentrations, for example, greenhouse gases. They give you records of past temperature. They tell you how the chemistry of the atmosphere has changed, whether humans have polluted the atmosphere, what the natural background levels are for various chemicals, many of which we don't understand the distribution for very well. We can use ice cores to understand the intensity of past storm systems. We can use them to tell volcanic activity, forest fires, et cetera, et cetera.
FLATOW: Are you seeing signs of global climate change already in your ice cores?
Dr. MAYEWSKI: This is a vast continent. And without a doubt, as we look to the north, Artic sea ice and the Artic in general has experienced in the last few decades a very dramatic change. The global climate models all predicted that the Southern Hemisphere would probably lag behind the Northern Hemisphere by two, three, perhaps four decades. That's largely because the Southern Hemisphere has so much ocean and it is able to hold a great deal of heat. So our records are important to tell - to be able to demonstrate what the past has looked like and whether or not we are experiencing change.
But to answer your question more directly; yes, we're beginning to see change around the edges of the continent and we're beginning to see during certain times of the year in the upper atmosphere over Antarctica changes. And these changes that I just - that I've indicated are all in the direction of a milder climate. The interior surface of Antarctica, where we are right now, is going to be a little bit slower to respond. Once it does, it could have dramatic implications.
FLATOW: How do you survive out there - I'm sorry - how do you survive out there in the middle of no place? What do you have to take with you, literally by yourself?
Dr. MAYEWSKI: Well, we have fantastic support from the National Science Foundation and the logistics organization Raytheon. We have - in some cases, some of the groups have tents. We're quite lucky; we're actually dragging shelters and we have a generator that provides us with power for a small amount of heating. But when you step outside, of course, everything is the way it's always been in Antarctica. It can be extremely cold. The early team that got in here experienced temperatures of minus 45, minus 50 degrees Centigrade, 50-knot winds, so those are extreme chill factors.
FLATOW: And how much more time will you spend out there?
Dr. MAYEWSKI: We probably have another 15 or 20 days to go here. We'll be back to this site next year. In a few days we'll be leaving our vehicles, developing little hills, using bulldozers so we can get the vehicles and the sleds up high to protect them through the winter. And we hope to be back here early November next year and probably spending a couple of months on our way to the South Pole, continuing to collect ice cores and doing geophysical experiments.
FLATOW: Do you get a feeling of what the early Artic explorers must have felt like when you do this?
Dr. MAYEWSKI: Well, it's a - I think that's an interesting question. One tends to think that with all of the modern technology we have now, including the Iridium phone that I'm speaking to you on, that you feel connected. But all you have to do is walk about a half a kilometer away from camp and you can certainly experience the same things that the early explorers did: the absolute quiet, the extremely clean air, the unbelievable visibility. So there's still a lot of that old adventure left in this area and a lot of very important new problems to work on.
FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you very much for taking time to be with us, and good luck to you out there. I'm sort of jealous. I wish I were out there with you. It sounds like a wonderful time. Take care and have a happy new year.
Dr. MAYEWSKI: Thank you very much. Same to you.
FLATOW: You're welcome. We were talking to Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. He has been traveling across Antarctica for the last 40 days collecting ice cores as part of the International Trans-Antarctica Scientific Expedition. And he began with over 5,000 pounds of food and lots of supplies, and I'm sure experiences that he'll talk about for the rest of his life.
Stay with us. We're not done with Antarctica. We're just beginning. We're going to talk more about what kind of science is going on this year. We're talking about looking for neutrinos from a telescope buried a mile below ice. How do you - it's too dark down to see anything in outer space from a mile below. We'll talk about it. Stay with us. We'll be right back.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about research going on in Antarctica. It's sort of the beginning, almost a little bit right at the beginning of the research season. It started about a month or so ago. My guests are Scott Borg, the director of the Division of Antarctic Sciences at the National Science Foundation, Donal Manahan, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California. Our number: 1-800-989-8255.
Scott Borg, why is the South Pole such a great place to do science?
Dr. BORG: Well, this is - I could go on and on about this. It's - there are many, many reasons. NSF, National Science Foundation, has a special role in supporting research in both the Artic and the Antarctic. And as Paul mentioned, these are really important areas for understanding the Earth as a whole system. Essentially, there's like a giant heat engine and it has to take heat from the sun and move it around and dissipate it. So the polar regions are key areas to understand.
But the National Science Foundation in Antarctica, this is the way the U.S. expresses a national interest in the Antarctic continent is through the science program. And we have science programs that use seismology to study the deep interior of the Earth. Later on, we'll be talking about some fascinating astronomy, as you mentioned, that peers out into space and tells us about clues to the origins of the universe. Well, we do a lot of research about the Antarctic continent itself, geological research that tells us about past environments on Earth, where the continents were through Earth history, biological research that tells us how organisms and ecosystems can not only survive but, as you mentioned earlier, thrive in the oceans around Antarctica.
And there's a lot of other things going on. The ice sheet - I think Paul mentioned that the Antarctic is about one and a half times the size of the United States. Another way to think of that is that it's almost 10 percent of the continental crust of the Earth and it's got an ice sheet that is average - the average thickness is over two miles thick. If all that ice were to disintegrate, sea level would rise by over 60 meters. So that's a whole lot of water, and so it's real important to understand how that ice sheet is going to change through time with the kinds of changes that are going on in the Earth.
Now nobody expects the ice sheet to start collapsing immediately; but over the long term, we actually have through studies like Paul's and related studies, there's lots of interesting research that's shown that the ice sheet has fluctuated greatly in the past and caused sea level to go up and down.
So there's really a tremendous amount of research like that going on. And geological drilling programs that try to get information about past conditions in the ocean that would create links to the kinds of ice core research that Paul was talking about. And this is a way that scientists have of extending environmental records back into geologic time, back from the last few tens of thousands of years, or hundreds of thousands of years, or as Paul mentioned, the oldest ice core that's around is not quite a million years old.
Dr. BORG: But extending those records back into the many millions of years, and then that gives us a benchmark to do modeling to understand how the Earth is going to change and...
FLATOW: Donal - let me just bring Donal in. Donal, I know that you're a 23-year veteran - Donal Manahan - of Antarctic science and you're a biologist and you study physiology. What kind of physiology? What are you looking for in the animals you study down there?
Prof. MANAHAN: Yes, that's right, Ira. What my interests have been for those 20-plus years has been to understand the physiological and the biochemical levels of adaptation to life in the cold biosphere. And what drew me to Antarctica all those years ago was a realization that was actually missing in my own early education, was that the cold biosphere is huge on planet Earth if you include, say, the deep sea, which by the way, I also studied. It can be over 90 percent of planet Earth, the living biosphere, because of the temperature of ice water. And so that's an enormous biosphere that we didn't know much about in terms of the life forms and how they work and how they adapt, and that's been the basis of, oh, at least half of my research field for the last 20 years.
FLATOW: Do you study any one particular organism in Antarctica? Or you study...
Prof. MANAHAN: I do. I'm very interested in how life grows up and develops, so I guess I would call myself a developmental physiologist. When you fertilize eggs, all the of the life forms that get turned on, cell divisions, how all of that works in extreme cold; how enzymes work in extreme cold, how metabolism works, how much energy is needed. In other words, I study life in cold and places where there's little food, and so I like to say if we study the cold and hungry biosphere and figure out how life forms, early life forms, the babies basically grow up in these cold environments.
FLATOW: And which kinds of animals or plant life are you talking about?
Prof. MANAHAN: Yes, good question. I study model organisms like the sea urchin embryo, for instance, which has been studied by developmental biologists for over a hundred years. And I'm very interested in using those as model organisms to study how embryos grow. For example, you take a single sea urchin, and it can produce millions of eggs out of one female. And so with one mom and one dad, you can make, say, 20, 30 million brothers and sisters. And we grow those up in Antarctica and study all of the physiological and biochemical changes as they grow their early life history stages.
FLATOW: I remember when I was down there - 1979. I was down there a long time ago. I remember people were - excuse me - trying to understand how fish or animals could live underwater where their blood should be freezing. They were investigating natural antifreeze in the blood.
Prof. MANAHAN: Yes, that's a fascinating story. Professor Art DeVries at the University of Illinois started working on those systems some decades ago, and he was the one who discovered that there's special proteins in the fish of blood that prevent the blood from freezing, because the fish of - the blood of fish is slightly less salty than seawater. And so once you get into those cold environments of around minus one, minus two degrees Centigrade, that fish blood would freeze. And he did a brilliant job in figuring out how that worked. And then since you were there, Ira, in fact he's even found the genes that are responsible and looking at the whole evolution of the genes that are responsible for the production of these famous antifreeze proteins.
FLATOW: I remember watching him fishing for these fish. They would drop a hook - or a bunch of hooks down over a thousand feet. The Continental Shelf just dropped right off there at McMurdo.
Prof. MANAHAN: That's right. I've done that, too, with Art over the years. That's quite an experience to stand over a thousand feet of water or so and start pulling out these big Antarctic cod as they're called, and they can be one to 200 pounds, easily.
FLATOW: And they were delicious.
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Prof. MANAHAN: Yes, when I've been in McMurdo - I haven't - wasn't there this year, but I will be later this year. We've been there, say, on Thanksgiving, that's one of the traditions is to cook up one of those big Antarctic cod for Thanksgiving dinner, yes.
FLATOW: Yeah, I think I was there at that time, also. Scott Borg, let's talk about the new Amundsen-Scott base. I've seen pictures of it, read descriptions of it. It's an incredible looking place, and it looked very - you know, you can do anything with it it almost looks like.
Dr. BORG: Well, it's - it is a fascinating place, and it will - it already is supporting a tremendous amount of new science. But we've rapidly taken advantage of that, and we're - there are some people that would like to have even more resources. But it is a very well developed station and it's not finished yet, but it is essentially functional. So people are living in it and we're supporting science at it.
We're just on the cusp of the international polar year, and the - Francis Halzen, the guest you'll have a little bit later, will be talking about one aspect. But we're supporting some science there, for instance, a 10-meter telescope that's a kind of radio telescope that will help study what dark matter is and what dark energy is and the origin of the early universe, that sort of the thing. So we're already supporting a tremendous amount, but we have a couple of years yet to finish things up.
The dome that you saw is actually still up, but all the functions inside it have been transferred to the new station, and so it's sort of just an empty dome waiting to be taken down.
FLATOW: And this new one is up on stilts.
Dr. BORG: It is.
FLATOW: What's the idea of stilts?
Dr. BORG: Well, the idea there is to get it up off the snow so that, hopefully, the wind will blow the snow right underneath it and keep on going and help to minimize the accumulation of snow from drifting. The natural snow accumulation around South Pole station is about 10 centimeters a year, so it's a desert, as we talked about earlier. But if you put objects up in the way of the wind, then, as you know, snow accumulates and then that creates some problems. So the idea here is to give it up on stilts high enough so the wind will hopefully blow snow underneath it in the long term and then allow us to have this station last longer.
1979, when you were there, the dome was only about seven years old then. And now the dome is over 25 years old, and the dome is largely covered by snow.
FLATOW: Yeah, I've seen the pictures. 1-800-989-8255. A quick phone call from Shessa(ph) in San Francisco. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
SHESSA (Caller): Hi, there was recently the big crater sort of hypothesized or discovered from satellite photos. And I wonder what's going on on the ground to give that credence, if anything.
Dr. BORG: Mm-hmm. Well, I can take that on. There's nothing that's going on right now to test that hypothesis. It's an interesting idea that the interpretation comes from gravity data that is produced from a couple of NASA satellites. And NSF and NASA collaborate on use of data in the polar regions in (unintelligible) and Antarctica.
But those are a special suite of satellites. It's called the GRACE system. And they measure gravity very precisely. So the interpretation there is that there's a feature in the gravity field that looks like it might be an impact crater.
But that - it's beneath the ice. And it's going to be very, very difficult to test. So at this point it's an interesting hypothesis, but a ways away from being tested.
FLATOW: Antarctica may be a frozen place but it is a sought after spot for paleontologists. And my next guest recently uncovered a 70-million-year-old plesiosaur from the Antarctic Peninsula. It is one of the best preserved plesiosaurs ever found.
And James Martin is paleontology program coordinator at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and curator of vertebrae paleontology at the school's Museum of Geology where the Plesiosaur was unveiled last month.
Welcome to the program, Dr. Martin.
Dr. JAMES MARTIN (Paleontology Program Coordinator, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology): Thank you, Ira. It's a pleasure to be here.
FLATOW: Tell folks who don't know what it is, what it is.
Dr. MARTIN: It looks just like what everybody's already dreamed the Loch Ness Monster looked like. It has a very long neck, paddles, sort of diamond-shaped paddles. It sort of looks like a snake strung through a turtle's body. It has a very large neck - a very long neck - and a quite small head at the end of that long neck armed with some pretty sharp teeth that were used to feed on fishes that lived at the same time.
FLATOW: Now how do you get - now this is not an animal that normally lives in frigid water, correct?
Dr. MARTIN: Yeah. Scott and Paul were talking about ice cores going back a million years ago. But we're dealing in things 70 times that length in duration. And at that time the global climate was much more warm and the waters were warm enough to support reptile life.
And we have no evidence to believe that these reptiles were necessarily warm-blooded. And certainly some of the other reptiles that were there at the same time, the mosasaurs, most likely were not warm-blooded.
So the waters had to be warm enough to allow these reptilian forms to survive.
FLATOW: Hmm. Is that because the waters were warmer or was Antarctica in the old plate tectonics world in a different place?
Dr. MARTIN: It wasn't much different, Ira. It was still quite far south. So the entire climate was much warmer. And we see that evidenced not only in the sea life that is one of the primary research interests that I have but even in the terrestrial forms that we find in Antarctica at this time, particularly when we find lots and lots of forests - you know, the Antarctic National Forest right now is about an inch high.
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Dr. MARTIN: But at that time there was quite a floral assemblage across the Antarctic Peninsula where we are currently working.
FLATOW: Is that where the coal that people find in Antarctica came from?
Dr. MARTIN: Well we haven't found - we found some carbonaceous fids. And one of the real surprising things that came out of this last expedition was finding carbon, big plant hunks, in the - in big chunks of ash.
So we found carbonaceous plant remains within pumice. And what this indicates to me is probably there was a huge blow-down, a big volcanic blast similar to what we saw at Mount St. Helens. And some of the plant material was incorporated into these volcanic ash chunks and blown out to the sea where this little baby plesiosaur was found.
FLATOW: Hm. Talking about Antarctica this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow talking with James Martin.
How difficult was it to get this plesiosaur out of where you found it? I understand there was one heck of a wind blowing and the conditions were not ideal.
Dr. MARTIN: No. Antarctica is a cruel task master. I think that every scientist that's been to Antarctica has left a little bit of themselves to Antarctica. And we certainly did the same.
John Foster Sawyer found this little guy late in our expedition there. And when he came across it he found some of the neck vertebrae exposed. He called me down to take a look at them.
And it was pretty obvious that we had a very important specimen because the vertebrae were still in live position; that is, they were articulated.
But the wind was blowing so hard that when we leaned down and tried to excavate back along the vertebral column, back along the backbone, to find out how much of the specimen was there, the wind blew the rocks back as fast as we could excavate them.
And because the wind was blowing so hard it was, you know, we were getting hit by, you know, three-quarter inch pebbles. And it kind of hurt. So we gave up. And the winds lasted for seven days and didn't let up at 70 miles an hour clocked down on the coast where we were camped.
And we of course were working way up on the high reaches of Vega Island up on a place called Sandwich Bluff.
So between snow and ice and wind it took us quite a while to get back up there and to get the thing excavated. And when we finally did get around and excavated it, getting through the permafrost, which is another real tricky maneuver, we tried to plaster the specimen. And the water would freeze before we could even get the plaster into the water.
So the plaster didn't really set around the plesiosaur. It more like froze. But we finally did get it out with the help of packing jackhammers up and gasoline and turned it over. And fortunately the Argentine colleagues brought a helicopter. Otherwise the poor baby would still be stranded up on the top of Sandwich Bluff.
So it was quite an ordeal. And the odds of getting this specimen from the southern most continent here in North America where it can be viewed and studied by the public, the odds are just amazing.
FLATOW: I don't think people really understand how hard it is to work under some of those conditions. Yeah.
Dr. MARTIN: Well I think if you want to do it, those of your listeners in the northern climbs, they can run out about right now and pitch a tent and live in that tent, you know, in their backyard for the next month or so and run down to the nearest stream and break out ice for water and live without electricity in most times and so on, I think they'd have a pretty good idea of what some of these poor guys have to deal with in Antarctica.
FLATOW: And you'd have to do it in Denver this time I think because the east it's 60 degrees today.
Dr. MARTIN: You're right.
FLATOW: We're going to take - we're going to take a quick break and come back and talk about some more about Antarctica, take your calls.
I want to thank you, Dr. Martin, for being with us.
Dr. MARTIN: Hm-hmm.
FLATOW: And good luck to you, James Martin, who is out there digging up the plesiosaur out in Antarctica. As I said, we'll be right back talking with the rest of our guests and your calls about research in Antarctica. We'll talk about this telescope for neutrinos, the IceCube that's buried a mile below the ice and what it's there for.
Stay with us. We'll be right back.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about scientific research this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY.
A reminder that on Monday on TALK OF THE NATION, anyone who's read “The Wealth of Nations” knows it's an immensely influential and impossibly dense work to get through. Well you don't have to do the work because P.J. O'Rourke has read Adam Smith so you don't have to. And he joins Neal Conan on Monday's TALK OF THE NATION.
As I said, we're talking this hour about science at the South Pole. My guests are Scott Borg, the director of the division of Antarctic Sciences at the National Science Foundation, Donal Manahan, professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California.
I want to ask you - before we move on to the IceCube - I want to ask both of you about the place that I visited when I was there that was so amazing. I still remember it. The dry valleys where you have these places that were so cold and so windy there was no ice there, no ice there.
And it was just - things were like - it was like being on Mars. And, in fact, that's what, Donal, that's what they used to say. They tested things from Mars there.
Prof. MANAHAN: Absolutely, Ira. Yeah. That's been used as a model system even back in the 1970s for some of the early Mars explorers to see if you were to arrive on dry soil and there was life there, as there is under the dry soil in the dry valleys, how would you detect it? What would you measure? What would you look for if you can't just put a human there to put it under a microscope?
So the dry valleys have been a fascinating environment for many decades of trying to understand life in extreme environments and what are the (unintelligible)? What are the adaptations? What are the diversity of life forms? How do they handle this?
Some of the work that really caught my attention - it's not work I've personally done but it's done by other scientists in Antarctica - is that these organisms seem to be able to shut down their life, not killed by any means, but get as close to death as maybe a physiologist would consider that to be the case.
And they will stay in these conditions until, perhaps, most of the year. And a little bit of water shows up and, boom, life starts again and they start to divide, et cetera. So this happens with plants and with animals.
So it's long been of interest to see how life forms can handle these extreme environments because obviously, as you said, it has lots of implications for thinking about life on other planets.
FLATOW: And, you know, people see all the ice and the snow in Antarctica but they don't realize that it is the coldest, driest desert in the world. I mean, where does all that come from? Yeah.
Prof. MANAHAN: Right. That's a big misconception, isn't it? People think of the desert, they think, say, Sahara Desert. But of course the biggest desert on planet earth is the Antarctica because deserts are defined by waterfall. And there's so little waterfall in Antarctica.
So it's a strange irony. It's one of the big dangers of working there is dehydration. In fact the early scientists who went there or in fact the early explorers, Scott Shackleton, right up to the modern era, all of us are always highly aware that we're in a desert and we have to keep pouring fluids down. It's quite a challenge to work under such dry conditions which are…
FLATOW: Well why were they formed and why is there no snow there or ice? Maybe, Scott, why don't you answer that one?
Dr. BORG: Sure. The dry valleys are a special natural laboratory, as we said. They're a high mountain block, a high range of mountains, that has been tectonically driven up.
And so, relative to the size of the current ice sheets, they're - current east Antarctica - they're relatively high. And so it's hard for ice to flow over them from the ice sheet and to get into them that way.
But also it's in a place in the weather patterns that doesn't get much moisture. And so there's very little snowfall. That's the desert aspect. And this high, mountainous region that blocks the flow of ice from the east Antarctic ice sheet and the weather patterns that create low snowfall create this environment that is very special.
And it turns out the valleys are very, very ancient. These valleys, the large-scale landscape that you'll remember seeing was carved over 15 million years ago. There are surfaces that have volcanic material on them now that are as old as about 15 million years. This is extraordinary for valleys to be preserved that long.
And then as Donal said, these are environments that then host ecosystems and the lakes and the rivers that flow just for a few weeks a year into these ice-covered lakes. And life just pops back.
So it's a fascinating - very fascinating ecosystem.
One thing I'd like to mention, though, on the cusp of the international polar year that we're at right now, the international polar year - this'll be the fourth - the first one having been done in the 1880s - this is an extraordinary time where we're trying to work with other countries to have sort of an intense observing campaign in both polar regions to learn more about the poles.
And in the dry valleys, one of the things that we're trying to do is create opportunities for research, researchers, so that they can work in the valleys into the polar night, sort of past the time during the austral summer when we traditionally support research there, because I think - and Donald may have some comments on this, but what we know is we know about life during the summertime. But we know when the researchers have to leave, that life is still going on, and we don't know all the processes involved that the organisms go through to, as Donald said, shut down so that they get to some kind of a very low metabolic stasis or something and then can pop back to life when the summer comes around the next time.
So we're going to - during the international polar year - we're going to try to create some opportunities so scientists can work in the non-traditional parts of the season.
FLATOW: You mean during the darkness.
Dr. BORG: That's correct. We traditionally pull scientists out of the dry valleys in late January, early February, and we're going to be trying to create an opportunity to let scientists at least work into April.
FLATOW: Because that's a long, dark winter for anybody to endure, especially out in the dry valleys out in that area.
Dr. BORG: Yeah, that's right, but we're going to try to do it, create some opportunities that lead to some interesting things.
FLATOW: Before we run out of time, I wanted - I do want to get into this new telescope, the IceCube that's being built a mile under the surface of the ice. It's made up of thousands of optical sensors sunk into the ice at different depths.
It's called the IceCube Observatory, and it's designed to look for something called neutrinos. These are poorly understood particles, sub-atomic particles, that are produced by black holes, gamma-ray bursts, supernovas, they come from the sun, there're all different kinds of other galactic activity.
And here to talk about IceCube is Francis Halzen. He's professor of physics at University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a principal investigator of the IceCube project. He joins us from Tinum, Belgium. Welcome to the program.
Professor FRANCIS HALZEN (Physics, University of Wisconsin, Madison): Good afternoon.
FLATOW: Good afternoon to you. Tell us what you can learn from this telescope. What does it do? It picks up neutrinos that pass through all that mile of ice? There are sensors throughout the ice?
Prof. HALZEN: Well, most of them pass through the ice, but the ones we are interested is about one in a million that crashes into an atom of ice, and that we can detect because when it interacts with an atom, occasionally it produces particles. You cannot see neutrinos, but you can see the particles that it produces in the crash, and then we study these particles, and from that we can trace the neutrino back to where it comes from in the sky. And so that's why it's a telescope.
FLATOW: And what can you learn from tracing the neutrinos?
Prof. HALZEN: Well, I don't know the answer to that. I mean, this is a discovery instrument. It's actually, in a sense, a very traditional way of doing astronomy. In astronomy, when you change the wavelength from radio waves to visible light, to gamma rays, you build different instruments. You see the sky in a different color, and usually you learn new things.
If I knew what we were going to see, it wouldn't be research. It wouldn't be worth doing. So the only thing we do know, however, that we need these big telescopes - we're seeing neutrinos from the sun, but the sun is very nearby. The signals from space are faint, and so we kind of know what size of telescope we need, the size of neutrino detector, to be able to look beyond the sun, and that's the instrument we are building.
FLATOW: So you want to see what the universe looks like in neutrino light, so to speak.
Prof. HALZEN: That's exactly what we are doing. We are making a map of the universe by accumulating dots on a map, one neutrino at a time. And when the map will have enough dots, then I'll be able to tell you what the universe looks like.
FLATOW: Wow, and how long a project would it take you - how long to build that map?
Prof. HALZEN: The construction will take, hopefully, if everything goes well -so far so good - will take until 2011. But we are putting sensors in the ice right now as we speak, actually, and so once a sensor is in the ice, it gets used to do science. So this is a telescope where you can do science as you are building.
FLATOW: And if you find a cluster of neutrinos from building your map, let's say, what does that suggest to you?
Prof. HALZEN: Well, I mean that - it's very difficult to discuss this in abstract, but that's one of the games we are playing, that is to find sources of neutrinos other than the sun. And, for instance, one of the things - of course we are not doing this totally blindly - one of the things we expect to see are the sources of the cosmic rays.
And cosmic rays are particles that come to us from the universe. They were discovered almost 100 years ago. They have enormous energies, and we have no clue where they come from. And so if we see clusters in the map, the first guess will be that we have discovered the sources of the cosmic rays. But, you know, as I said, it's a discovery instrument, and we found a way to build a technology, to build a billion-ton neutrino detector, and now it's up to nature to deliver.
FLATOW: Did you have to develop brand-new technologies, or could you use off-the-shelf material?
Prof. HALZEN: Yes and no. The idea of doing neutrino astronomy goes back to the ‘50s. As soon as the neutrino was discovered, people knew that they wanted to do astronomy with it. They also found out soon that you need this enormous instrument, so the challenge was one of technology.
And in fact, in a sense, we developed - I mean, the idea of using Antarctic ice, of course, was a breakthrough because people were trying to do this in ocean water and are still trying to do this using ocean water as a detector, and that's turned out to be much more challenging than what we are doing.
But in a sense, what we do with instrument, a block of ice of a kilometer filled with light sensors, and the light sensors are photomultipliers, which is a World War II technology.
FLATOW: So it's taken you all that time to get to where you are using World War II technology?
Prof. HALZEN: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. HALZEN: It's important when you do science in an environment like this to keep it simple.
FLATOW: Yeah. We're talking about science in the environment of the Antarctic this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Francis Halzen and Scott Borg and Donald Manahan. You guys can jump in if you want to comment.
Dr. BORG: Sure, well IceCube is really a fascinating discovery instrument, as Francis said, and we have really high hopes for discovering new things once it's fully deployed in that. But to give you an idea of where we are in it, I think - and Halzen - or sorry, Francis, correct me if I'm wrong, but ultimately we hope to have on the order of 70 strings in the ice.
Each string will have these detectors deployed between about one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half kilometers beneath the surface. So it gets well below (unintelligible) where it's very dark, and as Francis said, neutrinos interact with an atom, a nucleus in ice and eventually produce a photon that can be seen by these photomultiplier tubes.
We have 14 strings in the ice now. As of yesterday, we were 400 meters in the process of drilling down, ultimately, to a two-and-a-half kilometer deep hole to deploy these modules. And so within the next day, we'll be deploying - we should be done deploying strings - the sixth string this year and the 15th string overall.
So we're well along the way. The target for this season is 12 strings, and I think we're on target or we're on track to meet that goal for this coming season.
Prof. HALZEN: Yes. I didn't want to make the project sound totally trivial, of course. You have to put 4,800 sensors between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half kilometers deep in the ice. And, for instance, the drilling technology to do this is an absolutely fascinating topic for which I don't think we have enough time here right now.
FLATOW: But it's very labor intensive, it sounds like.
Prof. HALZEN: Yes. At the moment, there are 44 scientists, engineers, technicians on the ice associated with the project.
FLATOW: Sounds fascinating. And other times, Scott, we've talked about solar telescopic research going on there.
Dr. BORG: That's right, that's right. You have an opportunity when the sun's up all the time and you're on the pole of rotation, it's possible to observe the sun for long periods of time, and for that matter for other kinds of astronomy, one of the things that the South Pole is particularly good for is that you can stare at parts of the sky for really long periods of time.
And this allows you to get - to build up a good signal-to-noise ratio when, as Francis said, sometimes the signal's pretty low. It's pretty little above background. And so when you're able to stare at it for a long time with these sensitive instruments, you can build up a good image, and that's one of the things - that and the very cold atmosphere - that makes South Pole Station a particularly good site for certain kinds of astronomy.
FLATOW: Well, I want to thank all of you for taking time to talk to me about Antarctica and the South Pole. It is, as I say, I was down there many years ago. It certainly changed the way I look at the earth and the world and changed my life, and I'm kind of jealous of all you doing that great research there. Thank you for taking time to join us.
Dr. BORG: Well, thank you very much for having us.
Prof. MANAHAN: Thank you, Ira.
Prof. HALZEN: Thank you.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Scott Borg is the director of the division of Antarctic sciences at the National Science Foundation. Donald Manahan, professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California. And also Francis Halzen is professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
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