Why scientists love the South Pole
Remote, isolated, and frozen all year, Antarctica is arguably the most untouched region on the planet. That makes it one of the world's most important places to do scientific research.
Humans didn't even catch a glimpse of Antarctica until 180 years ago. And only in the last 45 years have people begun to explore this vast polar desert in earnest.
Today, scientists come to the South Pole from around the world to study climate, astrophysics, marine biology, geology, ecology, and more.
Covered in ice that's three miles deep in places, Antarctica is the earth's longest-running history book. Locked in the ancient glaciers are clues about earth's past. Not much snow falls there - six inches in the interior, 50 inches on the coast each year.
But when it does snow, it accumulates in layers. Over the years, the layers are compacted into solid ice. By drilling through the ice and examining the layers, scientists can find clues to what earth's climate was like centuries ago. The deeper scientists drill, the further back in time they can look. The core samples, about four inches in diameter, are carefully packed and shipped back to the United States. [See "Unlocking Secrets of the Ice" in the Jan. 18 Monitor, page 22.]
South Pole stars
Antarctica is an astronomer's dream come true. Why? For one thing, during the winter, the South Pole is tilted away from the sun 24 hours a day - it's always dark. For another, the weather conditions are nearly perfect for looking at the stars. Even the cold helps, for cold air tends to be clear and free of moisture, which can distort light. The Amudsen-Scott South Pole Station is arguably one of the best places on earth to study the stars. And while the two telescopes there are relatively small (24-inch reflectors, about), many important discoveries have been made there.
Ecosystems in isolation
Many factors make Antarctic ecosystems ideal for research. Their simplicity, for instance. Conditions are so harsh that few life forms survive above the ice. (Under the ice, though, ocean life is rich, complex, and abundant.) A simple, land-based ecosystem is easier to study. There are fewer variables to consider, so conclusions are easier to draw.
You may be surprised to learn that not all of Antarctica is covered with ice and snow. The dry valley region, just a few miles from McMurdo, has an extremely basic ecosystem. All aspects of these valleys are studied, from the seasonal flow of glacial streams to microscopic worms, called nematodes, that live in the gravelly, dry soil.
There, researchers can focus on specific aspects of an ecosystem - microscopic animals or geologic processes - in relative isolation. As scientists begin to understand how these basic ecosystems work, they can apply this knowledge to systems that are more complex.
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