personal: atmospheric antarctic science

So you’re all asking about science, I get the hint!

Not my favourite topic (especially amongst friends), as you know, but, just

this once, I’ll try and tell you what I’m doing here. Or meant to be. For those

of you who haven’t already been put off by the title of this blog.

It’s actually been very humbling being here and seeing the degree of support

and infrastructure that is dedicated to Antarctic scientific research. There

are whole huge debates, I know, about whether Antarctica should be dedicated

to “peace and science” as it is or whether tourists, artists, musicians, adventurers

etc should be allowed more access. And I wouldn’t be arguing in support of the

scientists necessarily. Still, this is the way it is right now and I certainly

am glad to be working in the area that has enough clout in today’s world to

keep a military presence out of Antarctica and, for now, to be hindering the

exploitation of mineral resources here. Had this continent been dedicated to

“peace and the arts”, who knows, I may have studied drama after all.

So it’s really important to be doing ‘good’ science. The people who work here:

the chippies and sparkies and plumbers and steelies and chefs and genny-mechs

and vehicle folk… their jobs all exist in the name of science support (although

yes, I know, we’re ultimately here for political reasons). And although they

are all here for their own personal reasons, just as I am, they also need to

believe in the work that is happening here, just as I do.

Which is where I struggle since although I’m a scientist (or perhaps because

of it) I struggle with the moral high ground that science often pulls, not to

mention many of the very suspicious experiments that have been justified ‘in

the name of science’. I know, you’ll tell me about electricity and medicine

and bridges and vehicles and all these other things that have evolved through

scientific investigation and without which we wouldn’t do very well these days.

Plus I am a bit daunted by the idea that this ‘good science’ is being entrusted

into the hands of people like me. Those of you who know me may well also worry.

So how do I justify my science? It all goes back to climate change. Really.

For a long time ice cores have been used to try and gain some understanding

about past climates. If we know about past climates, then we might be better

able to predict future climates or, at the very least, appreciate whether recent

dramatic changes in the climate are likely due to man’s influence or merely

are part of a cycle that has ancient timescales.

Snow falls on the ground. It is light and fluffy and full of air. As more snow

falls, this earlier snow settles and becomes more compacted. With time, the

weight of snow above it becomes so heavy that it starts turning into ice. Any

air that is mixed in amongst the snow becomes trapped in bubbles in the ice.

Centuries later these bubbles become even more compacted and the ice is totally

translucent, ancient, a memory, like fossils and lake sediments, of days when

dinosaurs walked this planet. (A pilot was telling me just the other day over

tea about one place in Antarctica covered in whole fossilised dinosaurs.)

Unlike dinosaur fossils, the ice has a timescale, depth, which can be used

to understand not only what ancient climates were like but also how it has changed

with time. The ice is not just water, the trapped air is not nitrogen, oxygen,

carbon dioxide and argon. There are other chemicals and particles that might

suggest the presence of forests or deserts. More recent ice shows a record of

lead from petrol, and then it reducing again when unleaded fuel was introduced.

And around the time of industrialisation it looks like methane and carbon dioxide

concentrations soar. And so, it seems does the temperature of the planet. Obviously,

temperature can’t be measured directly from the ice..but the ratio of different

isotopes of oxygen trapped in air can tell you about temperature. It’s all proxy

data you see,– it’s all theories and assumptions but it does also seem

to be in agreement. And this is the basis of a sound scientific theory.

The problem is, we are making a massive assumption that once the snow falls

to the ground, all light and airy, the chemical compostion of the air doesn’t

change. It just gets pushed deeper and deeper and eventually trapped in bubbles

in ice until thousands of years later some random scientist drills a very deep

hole, takes a slice of ice and analyses the air that is trapped within it.

It’s a fairly sound argument once the air is trapped. However, you and I know

full well that no small layer of snow is going to stop air from diffusing upwards

and downwards and, quite frankly, wherever it’s warmer (if it’s cold) or colder

(if it’s warm). And on its travels it might pick up molecules from the clouds

and deliver them to the snow or molecules in the snow and free them into the

open atmosphere. It’s all physics. And chemistry. Maybe maths. It doesn’t really

matter what it is, it doesn’t care even if we do. I’m no glaciologist as you

know so the above story is a massive simplification. And I’m not patronising

you,– I really know little more than this (but I’m learning).

What I do know is that to truly understand the record of molecules trapped

in air deep, deep down in the ice, we need to understand what happens to air,

and more importantly, the various molecules in it, between the surface and the

trapped bubbles. Which is why I’ve been employed as an atmospheric chemist.

And why I’m drilling holes (to probe chemistry in the snow) and flying blimps

(to probe chemistry in the air). Oh yeah, and why, next year, we’ll be firing

a laser out of the east window of the CASLab,- the one with the stunning view.

That’s to monitor absorption of light from different molecules in the air. Not

as star-trek as earlier blog-readers might hope but still pretty cool. I was

peering out that window just the other day when I’m sure I saw a morris minor

kite contraption heading off to the pole….

More details on that stuff, if you’re interested, anon… hope you’re all well,

and thanks for keepiong the emails/blogs aflowing.

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7 Responses to personal: atmospheric antarctic science

  1. Amy says:

    Oohhh, it’s all like being back at school again. I think you’d make a great teacher Rhi (but don’t necessarily recommend it)!! The dinosaurs sound cool too! xxx

  2. Jim R says:

    Yes! Your adoring public wants more science! We love it. Best blog entry yet- keep it coming. Science is like the pristine untrodden snow you can see from your window, just waiting for you and your colleagues to be the first to tread (delicately) across it, where no-one has gone before. And science is that most humane of activities, sharing; the search for truth by co-operation, between colleagues, across disciplines, nationalities and generations. OK, so the flip side is plagiarism, paranoia and patents (and weapons of mass destruction); but that’s the other guys.

  3. Rhian says:

    just heard, no joke, that although the latest Ministry of Defence flight from Brize Norton arrived at the Falklands Islands as scheduled, the BAS employees who were meant to be on it were delayed due to snow in Cambridge, and missed it. Next flight: two weeks time.

  4. Hildegard und Wedig says:

    Liebe Rhian

    wir sind in Stuttgart und denken an Dich. Wir sind auch im Schnee, herrlich.Wir,das heiflt auch Wedig und Hildegard. Wir gr∏flen Dich ganz herzlich und w∏nschen, dass es Dir weiterhin gut gefâllt.

  5. Kathy Coyne says:

    Wow!! I have just spent an amazing hour catching up on all your e-mails. It sounds great, and I’m beginning to understand the appeal! Wonderful to be able to see the photos on the official site. What does the doctor do all day, assuming that tending the sick can’t take up much of her day? Not that I am seriously considering joining you… I shall try to send a personal email too… to

    lots of love. Kathy xxx

  6. Michelle says:

    Bubbles trapped in ice and getting flattened… I love the way that sounds… how many variations of blue, black, white, clear and grey make up your holes in the snow? How is the sun doing, by the way? Do you like the brightness and light 24/7?

  7. cathy says:

    hallo! do you know that exactly one year ago tomorrow you defended? and do you know that alex is honouring the first anniversary by passing through the final rite of graduate school passage herself? it’s so weird, what coincidence, what unseen powers at work. and also interesting, it is colder here in toronto than it is down there! we’ve been having -20C weather for weeks! we don’t kite-ski though, but it sure sounds like fun. also we don’t have sunshine at midnight, and that sucks.



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