How the shutdown could impact scientist studying space weather at the South Pole

October 10, 2013
Photo courtesy of C. Robert Clauer
Photo courtesy of C. Robert Clauer

One of the many impacts of the government shutdown has been that the cancellation of the U.S. Antarctic Program for the year. The program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, manages science research on the South Pole.

To get a better sense of what impact this will have on scientists whose research is supported by the program at the South Pole, we talked to C. Robert Clauer, who is a professor of space science at Virginia Tech and whose research in Antarctica is funded by the U.S. Antarctic Program. He told us about what life in Antarctica is like, what his research on space weather entails and what caretaker status means for scientists researching in Antarctica.

Leave your questions for him in the comments and he will return at 2:30 p.m. ET to answer selected relevant questions.

With the government shutdown, it’s been reported that stations at the U.S. Antarctic Program have gone to caretaker status. Could you give us some perspective on what that means?

All operations will stop at the Antarctic stations except those required for Life, Safety and preservation of government property. All research operations and preparations for research activity during the summer field season will stop.

How much time have you spent in Antarctica?

I have been to the Antarctic and South Pole during two summer periods, December 2010 – January 2011 and December 2011 – January 2012.

Could you tell us a little bit about what it’s like to live in Antarctica?

The South Pole is at a very high altitude. While it is physically around 9000 feet, the pressure altitude is more like 11,000 feet. The rotation of the Earth pulls atmosphere from the poles to the equator (centrifugal force). So, it takes some time to acclimate to the altitude.

Still, at least for me, work and physical activity moved at a slow pace. South Pole is cold even in the summer, so you must put on a lot of clothes to go outside. Putting on all of the clothing and heavy boots made me tired, but [it is] too hot to stay inside, so it was necessary to move outside right away.

The cold weather gear makes working outside very comfortable. In our case we were installing equipment that would work autonomously over the year making measurements of magnetic disturbances that result from electrical currents in space and in the ionosphere above the station.

We also have an experiment to investigate disturbances to GPS satellite signals caused by ionospheric disturbances. This involves digging a hole in the snow to bury the electronics box and battery box, erecting a tower that holds solar panels and the antennas for our satellite data relay system and GPS experiment and deploying our sensors.

We work long days, and since the season is limited, we work on the weekends also. We are there to celebrate Christmas with a very nice dinner and New Years. There are some social activities, a Christmas party and a ceremony for New Years.

What’s it like to be there when the sun never sets?

It is something that you get used to. Celebrating New Years at midnight is bright sunlight, but the sun is on the other side of the station. It is very noticeable returning to Christchurch, New Zealand when returning home and the smells of the flowers and green vegetation have a very strong impact after being in a white desert environment.

I’m guessing there’s quite a small community of scientists and support staff there – what is life like on station?

The new South Pole station is very nice with comfortable sleeping rooms, excellent dining hall, gymnasium. The laboratory spaces are very good. The holiday party is created by the people at the station who have a lot of talent — several bands are formed and play music.

It is necessary to conserve power and water so showers are limited, but this is not much of a problem and it is easy to adapt to this life style. The library is very good so there are books and many video disks to watch for relaxation.

You said that you’re planning to head back in December. What impact do the seasons have on research there?

The summer research season starts, I think, in November and ends in early February or late January. This is the period that it is possible to work outside easily. After the summer season ends, a small group remains to winter over and maintain the station and conduct science experiments.

Your research interests include ‘space weather’. Could you explain that some more?

The solar wind interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field to produce an ‘electromagnetic’ weather around the Earth. The aurora or northern and southern polar lights are related to these phenomena. This weather now can affect much of the technology that we rely upon now — like communications systems, navigation systems, electrical power distribution, humans in space, air crews on polar transcontinental flights, and long distance pipelines.
It involves the development of the radiation belts, development of electrical currents that carry millions of amperes around the Earth and in the ionosphere.

Leave your questions for Bob Clauer in the comments below, and he will return at 2:30 p.m. ET to answer selected relevant questions.

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David Streit · October 10, 2013