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Why Antarctica is Earth's petri dish

The frozen continent at the southern end of the world is a hub of scientific research, from the study of meteorites to sea spiders.

US Associate Director for Research of the Earth Science Division (ESD) within NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Jack Kaye delivers a conference about evolution of the Ozone hole on the Antarctic at the US Pavillon during the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris, in 2015.
Francois Mori/AP/File

Antarctica isn’t just for extreme adventurers and penguins. Scientists from around the world also flock to the frozen southern continent, making it one of the most studied places on Earth. At least 30 countries operate research stations there, swelling the population of scientists and support staff to some 4,000 in the summer. 

Sure, many of them are the expected ice experts. But research is also being conducted across a multitude of disciplines – by chemists, astronomers, astrophysicists, and even paleontologists. 

Some studies have revealed critical insights, such as the infamous hole in the ozone layer that appears over Antarctica during the region’s spring. In 1985, British Antarctic Survey scientists discovered that there was about half as much ozone over their research station as there had been just 30 years earlier. The ozone layer is crucial to life on Earth, blocking out harmful radiation from the sun. 

What followed has turned into a scientific success story, as governments and scientists across the globe came together to figure out just what was creating the tear. An international treaty – the 1987 Montreal Protocol – phased out the production of chemicals that disrupted Earth’s protective blanket. Last year, a team of atmospheric chemists announced that the hole is finally shrinking and they credit the Montreal Protocol.

Other scientists hunt for insights into worlds outside our own. The South Pole Telescope, funded by the US National Science Foundation, helps astronomers get a clear view of the heavens thanks to the thin, stable atmosphere atop the Antarctic Plateau. With it, scientists have taken snapshots of the cosmic microwave background, the radiation left over from the event that formed the universe.

Tiny, nearly massless particles from beyond our galaxy have also been discovered buried deep in the ice near the South Pole by scientists at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. These cosmic neutrinos reach Earth nearly undisturbed by matter. They originate from extreme environments such as black holes and exploding stars, and give astronomers another way to study the universe.

Some researchers are simply looking down at their feet, searching for rocks that have broken off celestial bodies and that could provide direct evidence of what a planet or moon may be like. Antarctica is a popular spot for meteorite hunters because the cold, dry conditions don’t erode the rocks as readily as those of other regions.