Ice Ice Baby

by Ann Bartkowski

This winter (or austral summer- depending on where you are), I’ve spent some of our break and a few weekends working in the webcast studio, where Ice Stories: Dispatches from Polar Scientists is happening.  The Exploratorium is currently webcasting with scientists who are in Antarctica, working on all of this amazingly cool research and having what seems to be a pretty good time down there.  Here’s some other info I picked up from being in the studio:

Happy International Polar Year!  From 2007-2009 the 4th International Polar Year (IPY) is taking place.  IPY is basically a coordinated effort among all of the countries with the aim of collaborating on scientific research to learn as much as possible about our world and our place in the infinities.  The 1st IPY took place in 1882. Seventeen out of the 24 Americans who participated in the Arctic expedition of the first IPY starved to death.   In order to survive, the rest of the expedition  had to pull a Donner Party…  This IPY is going much better for us.  There’s now enough funding to hire chefs to cook for the scientists so they can focus on their research. 

My favorite video to play on the television screens in the studio called Penguin Science.  Visitors can’t seem to get enough of watching wobbly birds in their tuxedos slip and slide across glaciers. It’s also amusing to watch the adults who – in an effort to get their small children to walk like penguins- waddle around the studio themselves, flapping their arms like flippers. 

One interesting thing I had never realized about penguins is that they have no land predators, which means humans can walk up to them without scaring them away.  So the commercial Coke runs at Christmastime…you know, the one in which a polar bear cub tumbles into the middle of partying penguins and the penguins are momentarily terrified of the bear but then the tension is broken when the baby penguin offers the polar bear a coke and then everyone is happy…unfortunately, doesn’t happen in real life.  Because coke is disgusting and polar bears and penguins wouldn’t want to drink it. And also because polar bears and penguins live at different poles.   

As the coldest, driest, highest continent, the climate of Antarctica is also pretty interesting.  It’s currently –23 °F  at the Amundsen-Scott  Research Station at the South Pole. If you factor in windchill,  it’s –47°F. Brr. And although 70% of the earth’s fresh water is frozen in the mile-thick Anarctic Ice Sheet,  Antarctica is a desert.  And it’s a dessert too if you are San Francisco Chef Elizabeth Faulkner:  http://www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/blogs/editor/2007/12/san-francisco-c.html#more

There are also volcanoes on Antarctica.  Mt. Erebus, near the US’s Mc Murdo research station has a permanent molten lava lake in its crater. But this formidable climate doesn’t prevent researchers from taking part in the annual Race Around the World.  It’s tradition for anyone stuck at the South Pole for Christmas to participate in the laid back race that covers a couple miles and crosses all of the time zones.  Or if you want a real challenge (and you have a spare $15,000) you can also be flown to Antarctica via private jet from Chile and be registered to run in the 100K Antarctic Ultra Race.

The combination of cold temperature, low water vapor, thin atmosphere, and 6 months of darkness makes Antarctica the perfect place to build a telescope which can be used to search for the origins of the universe. There’s an enormous telescope (10 meters in diameter) at the South Pole looking for galaxy clusters.  There’s also a telescope called Ice Cube designed to detect neutrinos given off by supernova explosions and gamma ray bursts.  There are trillions of neutrinos streaming through your body every second, but in order to detect them, you need some sort of transparent medium, such as ice.  The team working on Ice Cube has tunneled down 2.4 km (that’s equivalent to over 9 Transamerica Pyramids stacked on top of each other) below the South Pole and placed sensors in the ice that detect light emitted when the neutrino crashes into the ice.  

Ice Cube- the telescope, not the gangsta rapper- should help us learn more about Dark Energy and Dark Matter…is anything cooler than that?  And does anyone want to take a trip to Antarctica with me?

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