University of Massachusetts Lowell Scientists Travel to the World’s Most Extreme Environment for Clues of the Earth’s Past.
Last November, UMass Lowell associate professor Kate Swanger of the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and postdoctoral researcher Kelsey Winsor joined researchers from around the United States on a two-month research expedition to Antarctica. The trip was funded through a $331,000 National Science Foundation grant.
Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys region may hide clues to our planet’s distant past, as well as humanity’s future. The low temperatures, isolation and dry climate mean it is insulated from significant human interference and many of the effects of climate change. There, change is marked by the daunting scale of millions of years, and it is the place on Earth that most clearly parallels the Martian terrain.
In an interview with mvm, Swanger, 36, and Winsor, 31, evince the kind of bond that can only be felt by humans who have worked together in a demanding and extreme environment. They are quick to laugh and often complete each other’s sentences.
“You can be walking over the landscape and it just looks like rocks,” Swanger says. “But if you dig down, there’s clean ice underneath you.” She explains that there are different types of ice, and that a particular type can provide important evidence of how the geography has changed. If the ice were to be the type that’s found in Alaska, it would be puzzling because the region is currently too cold and dry for it to form.
“The glaciers there are very clean. … They are so cold that they don’t melt at their bases,” Swanger says. If the ice is glacial, that indicates that the glaciers once extended beyond where they are now. Preliminary data show that their samples are glacial. The next step is to date the samples, a complex process that was continuing at the time of the interview.
The ice samples they brought back with them are stored in two locations. One set is kept at the university, and the other was sent to the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver.
Such digging and scraping and drilling took a physical toll. “We joke that we could have CrossFitters pay us $10,000 to come down,” Winsor says. A Muay Thai kickboxer, her coach was surprised that she returned in better shape than when she left. Swanger explains her improved fitness by recalling a particularly rigorous boulder-tossing routine: “That was horrible. We were doing ground-penetrating radar. You have to couple the radar with the ground. … We had to throw thousands of boulders and then throw them back, because you can’t just leave a scar on the landscape.”
Aside from the physical exertion, the cold pressed the mental and intellectual reserves of the two women. They arrived late in the austral winter. Temperatures dropped at night to minus 15. The cold led to a frightening experience one day, when Swanger realized she had stopped taking the pictures and recording the notes that she was required to do. Recognizing this as the onset of hypothermia, she returned to camp to recover. “And then it got a lot warmer … and we got so much smarter” she says with a laugh.
Winsor’s blog from the expedition is available online. She writes candidly about the day-to-day problems she faced, as well as the land’s stark beauty. She chronicles the unexpected aspects of Antarctic research, including how urinating in a bottle in subzero temperatures requires some forethought. She had difficulty falling asleep for the first two weeks because it was so cold. Looking back on pictures of herself from her trip, she recognized a wild look in her eyes. Now, despite the hardships, there is a note of nostalgia in her voice when she says, “You know when you come back to society, and everyone has these rules? [In Antarctica], you shed them fast [because]you’re so focused on staying warm and staying fed.”
Even time felt different. “It’s a very intimate way to work with an environment, slowly clambering over things,” Winsor says.
It is a region with no pollution and no visible vegetation, barren and silent during the times when the katabatic winds weren’t battering the sides of her Scott tent
(a pyramid-shaped tent used in polar regions). During a visit to Don Juan Pond, the saltiest body of water in the world, she learned that the winds were strong enough to necessitate piling rocks on top of rocks to hold down tents and belongings. Failure to do so would have sent a tent sailing across the dry glacier for miles in an instant, lost forever.
Despite the bad food, body-breaking labor and solitude, both women would like to return.
“It’s not a pleasant experience. It’s a rich experience,” Winsor says. She smiles and leans forward in her chair as though she’s ready to go right away.
Top of page: A small sample of clean ice cored from the continent’s Pearse Valley. The ice can be found under 50 cm of sandy sediments. Photos courtesy of UMass Lowell.
To read Winsor’s blog entries and see more photos from the trip, visit: blogs.uml.edu/antarctica-2015/