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A Ridge of One's Own

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Like famous explorers, three Arts and Sciences faculty were immortalized this year. Each had a remote ridge named in his honor.

To visit their namesake ridges, the three Department of Earth and Space Sciences (ESS) professors—Howard Conway, Charles Raymond, and Stephen Warren—will have to travel nearly 10,000 miles to the most frigid place on earth, Antarctica.

Desert

No problem for these three. They’ve journeyed to Antarctica a combined total of 35 times, searching for clues to climate change in Antarctica’s glacial ice. They are among 10 ESS faculty currently pursuing research in Antarctica.

“I’d wanted to go to Antarctica since I was eight years old,” says Warren, who has made seven trips there. “My father got me interested.” His father’s fascination emerged in 1928, says Warren, when Admiral Byrd announced he was going to take an Eagle Scout with him on his expedition there. (Alas, the elder Warren was not selected.)

Howard Conway, who has been to Antarctica more than 20 times, made his first trip there as a mountaineer, not a researcher. “I grew up in New Zealand, so Antarctica was my back door, really,” says Conway. A group from the University of Maine hired Conway to join their research team as a safety expert. “That trip—seeing the research they were doing—helped motivate me to go back to school,” says Conway. “It helped pay for school, too.” 

Charlie Raymond.

Charlie Raymond. Media credit: Bruce Weertman

Charlie Raymond, like Conway, was a mountaineer. Although he had no particular fascination with Antarctica, his interest in both mountains and physics led him to study glaciology and ice, which eventually brought him to Antarctica. Once there, he was hooked.

“It’s such an extraordinary place that you can’t help getting attached to it,” says Raymond. “It has extraordinary terrains.”

The others concur. “The lighting is incredible too,” says Conway. “It’s just magical. It is so stunning to get out of the airplane and see the TransAntarctic mountains rising out of the ice shelf. It is a privilege to be there.”

 

Life at the End of the Earth

Beautiful, yes. But how about the living conditions? That depends on who you talk to—and what team you are traveling with.

Warren has traveled with expeditions led by the U.S., Australia, and Russia. His next trip will be with a French expedition to Dome C Station. He’s looking forward to that one. “Dome C is supposed to have the best food,” he says. “They have two chefs—one French, one Italian.”

Not that he’d join an expedition based on cuisine. It’s all about location, location, location. Different countries have stations in different parts of Antarctica, leading researchers to join with other teams as needed. “I hooked up with the Russian expedition when I was working at the South Pole Station and wanted to compare the snow at the Vostok Station about 800 miles away,” explains Warren.

Warren’s research focuses on climate processes at the earth’s surface—the interaction of snow with the atmosphere and the reflection of sunlight by the snow and sea ice. He also studies the properties of clouds in Antarctica, both over the plateau and over sea ice. He spends much of his time based at the research stations, with short trips to collect data. Conway and Raymond, by contrast, make long forays into the field.

“We tend to get out of base and into the field as quickly as possible,” says Raymond, who has traveled with both U.S. and British teams. “With the British team, I felt more like an explorer,” he says. “We were issued boxes of food that went on sleds, and cooking was done with a kerosene stove. The U.S. operation system is much bigger. We typically use ski-equipped aircraft to put us into a site, and then we traverse to regions of interest on snowmobiles. Although I felt more like a small part of a large organization, the support is fantastic.” 

Howard Conway.

Howard Conway. Media credit: Charles Raymond

Both Raymond and Conway use ice-penetrating radar to measure ice thickness and internal layering. “Radar-detected layers are caused by variations in chemistry that can be related to changes in climate,” explains Raymond. “The brightest layers are associated with volcanic eruptions, which deposit acid.”

Using measurements and models, scientists can study the shapes of the layers and piece together how they have been warped by movement of the ice, and infer past flow conditions. “We can figure that out for the past 5,000 to 10,000 years—which covers the change from the ice age to inter-glacial times,” says Raymond. “After that, the layer patterns get pretty flattened out.”

 

A Winter of Isolation

Most Antarctic research takes place in a four-month period each year, when planes can take off and land on the barren continent. Then temperatures plummet, making such travel nearly impossible. In fact, only two planes have landed at South Pole Station during the winter in 44 years. 

A few hearty souls do remain in Antarctica to continue their research through the long winter. Steve Warren decided to spend the full year there in 1992. A few might question his sanity, committing to nearly nine months with 22 people, confined to the U.S. field station at the South Pole, with temperatures averaging 60 degrees below zero. But it made perfect sense to him. 

A photo of Steve Warren (right) and Rich Brandt, a former graduate student, taken from a ship in the Antarctic Ocean, made it onto an Australian stamp.

A photo of Steve Warren (right) and Rich Brandt, a former graduate student, taken from a ship in the Antarctic Ocean, made it onto an Australian stamp.

“It’s really rushed there in the summer,” he explains. “When it was time to leave, time to close the station the previous year, I still had a lot to do. I thought spending the winter there would allow me to make more progress.”

Warren worked out a schedule for the winter months and “pretty much followed it day by day,” he says. The constant darkness of Antarctic winters did cause some scientists to become depressed or lose sleep, but he suffered no such problems. In fact, he found much to like about the situation.

“With so few people there, you never had to worry about remembering somebody’s name,” he says with a grin. “It’s a simple lifestyle. A catered lifestyle. I didn’t have to buy groceries or cook. People could only reach me by email, so I could choose when I wanted to communicate.”

On the other hand, heading out the door for a simple stroll required preparation. “I did walk out in the winter at least once every day to run experiments, and every eight weeks I spent five hours collecting snow samples one kilometer from the station. In that weather, just going one kilometer was an expedition.”

 

Warm Toes and a Route Home

Since Warren, Raymond, and Conway began their visits to Antarctica, technology has advanced significantly. What advance has made the biggest difference to them? Conway thinks it might be the availability of satellite images. But Raymond votes for Global Positioning System (GPS) technology.

“The main hazard in the kind of work we do is getting lost,” Raymond explains. “The ice is flat with no physiographic features. We used to put out flags and use compasses to get from flag to flag, but sometimes you had little visibility. Now with GPS, we can find our way home and we can get precise location measurements for the ice we’re studying.”

And Warren’s favorite technological advance? “Definitely those chemical toe heaters,” he says. “When I wintered over, I took $1,000 worth of toe heaters.”