but Not Easy
The Canada Glacier reaches an end at Antarctica’s Lake Hoare, where scientists have set up a field camp to study factors
that contribute to glacial melting and the types of life that can survive in barren environments.
South Pole. Encouraging nonscience visitors
could help scientists share costs, or it could de-
grade the scientific value of Antarctica, mem-
bers of the Augustine commission say.
More worrisome, though, is the potential
attraction of natural resources. Antarctica is
estimated to have the world’s third-largest oil
reserves, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela,
and much of that oil is under the Ross Sea,
near McMurdo. The continent also has min-
erals that include copper, gold, and platinum.
Those resources are not generally considered
worth extracting from such a challenging lo-
cation, and the Antarctic Treaty forbids doing
so. But the recent jostling for territory around
the North Pole, including a 2007 Russian
claim to a broad swath of the Arctic Ocean
and its oil resources, has raised anxieties over
the Antarctic Treaty’s long-term viability.
A more immediate concern may be “bio-
prospecting,” in which scientists hunt Antarctica
for organisms with genetic protections against
diseases. If not coordinated, the exploitation of
such discoveries could devastate a native species
or fuel international battles over royalties, says
Diana H. Wall, a professor of biology at Colora-
do State who is one of three university research-
ers on Mr. Augustine’s 12-member panel.
In preparation for the panel’s discussions,
the National Research Council last year as-
sessed the scientific rationale for the Antarc-
tica Program. It came up with a long list of
justifications, headed by the need to assess
climate-related threats comprehensively.
That still leaves a lot of room for the com-
mission to figure out the most cost-effective
ways of carrying out all the research. Offering
researchers opportunities to work in Antarcti-
Flight-crew members check their map
en route to the South Pole research station.
ca requires a great deal of advance planning,
especially on big-budget endeavors such as the
$271-million IceCube subatomic-particle detec-
tor, at the South Pole (
see Page A15
). The pan-
el has been talking about making researchers
more responsible for solving logistical needs as
part of their grant applications.
The scientists who work in Antarctica are
generally comfortable with their understated
role in keeping the Antarctic peace, Ms. Wall
says, even though locations chosen for geopo-
litical reasons, such as the South Pole, may
not be optimal for some experiments.
And sometimes geopolitical concerns have
brought unexpected benefits. Astronomers,
for instance, now recognize that the South
Pole location is ideal for some kinds of re-
search never envisioned back in the 1950s,
when U.S. strategists made a push to grab the
location before the Soviets did.
In fact, the U.S. strategy of linking science
to political status in Antarctica showed excep-
tional foresight, says Mr. Howkins, the Colora-
do State history professor, who is British. After
Chile, Argentina, and Britain began quarreling
over land around the Antarctic Peninsula, near
South America, the United States started Op-
eration Highjump in 1946, using some 4,000
troops to stake its own claims. It then began
pressing for the Antarctic Treaty, preserving
the continent for science and suspending all
“So right from the beginning of the Ant-
arctic Treaty, there’s this explicit connection
between scientific research and participation
in the politics, which was incredibly intelli-
gent,” Mr. Howkins says. Even some reluc-
tant countries have now come on board, and
the treaty now has 49 member nations.
The effect is that each country’s status in
Antarctica is largely based on its scientif-
ic prowess. “It benefits the U.S. greatly,” Mr.
Howkins says, that American researchers are
“doing the most productive science” and pub-
lishing the most papers.
The focus on science also encourages in-
ternational cooperation. One study cited by
the Augustine panel found that among schol-
arly papers on the Arctic and Antarctica, the
proportion of those with co-authors from at
least two countries rose from just 6 percent in
1981 to more than 40 percent in 2007.
Emphasizing science in Antarctica is “real-
ly one of the best possible outcomes that you
can imagine,” Mr. Howkins says. “There’s all
sorts of other things that could have gone much
worse with Antarctica if the Antarctic Treaty
hadn’t been designed around science.”
LAKE HOARE CAMP, ANTARCTICA
THE CANADA GLACIER comes to an abrupt and majestic end in the Taylor Valley, in the form of a 60-foot-high wall of ice
that dwarfs the tents of the climate scientists
who sleep beneath it. There, in bright summer
sunshine, the glacier melts steadily into a bar-
ren hillside, slowly filling Lake Hoare.
Nearby, a wooden research hut that has stood
along the lake since 1978 sits boxed up for re-
location because of the rising water levels. It’s
tough to imagine a more compelling image of
the inexorable march of global warming.
Except that this part of Antarctica is actually
cooling, says Andrew G. Fountain, a professor of
geography and geology at Portland State Univer-
sity who is a top expert on the glacier. It appears
that the glacier is melting because warm, wind-
blown dust particles are settling on top.
“Because of the climate cooling in this
part of the continent,” he says, “the only rea-
son that we’re getting increased melt has to
be because of these local conditions of sedi-
ment on top of glaciers.”
Such surprises are not unusual in Antarc-
tica. Of all the research projects that the Na-
tional Science Foundation supports through
the United States Antarctic Program, those
aimed at predicting the course of climate
change have emerged as a priority, whether
they involve studying glaciers or uncovering
historical ice records or evaluating the effects
of climate change on surrounding life. And
yet clear answers remain elusive.
For example, consider ARGO, a network of
3,000 free-floating buoys that measure under-
water ocean temperature and salinity. It’s an
ambitious and creative project that relies on de-
vices programmed to sink, take measurements,
and then pop up every few days to the ocean
surface, where they automatically fire off their
readings by satellite.
Almost from the start of the project, says Deb-
orah A. Bronk, a professor of marine science at
the College of William & Mary, ARGO mocked
scientists’ poor understanding of ocean currents:
The buoys followed none of the predicted trav-
el patterns. That was a major wake-up call, she
says, especially for those studying the ocean
around Antarctica, where water currents—es-
pecially those well beneath the surface—play a
still-poorly-understood role in regulating global
temperature and climate.
The role of water flow in climate change
was demonstrated on an impressive scale
in 2002. That’s when the huge Larsen B ice
shelf, which covered 1,250 square miles at
a thickness of 650 feet, suddenly collapsed
along the east coast of Antarctic Peninsula.
Those who had studied Larsen had expected
it to fall apart much more slowly. But they had
failed to understand the amount of warming
that had occurred underneath, says Wolfgang
Rack, a senior lecturer for glaciology and re-
mote sensing at the University of Canterbury, in
New Zealand. “We discovered that parts could
collapse within days,” says Mr. Rack, who has
made nine research trips to Antarctica.
The same lesson also drives the Pine Island
Glacier project. Covering more than 300 square
miles at several thousand feet deep, the glacier
hangs off the edge of western Antarctica and is
one of the continent’s biggest and fastest melting
glaciers. Studying it requires researchers to fly
almost 1,400 miles from the main U.S. research
base at McMurdo, then set up drilling equipment
on the tottering glacier to get a better sense of
how fast the ocean is melting it from below.
Such research efforts were identified last
year in a review by the federally chartered Na-
tional Research Council as centerpieces of the
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