Research on ice: SA’s Antarctic science lab

SANAE IV research base

Nestled on a rocky outcrop 6000 kilometres from local shores, South Africa’s Antarctic science expedition has been collecting data in the most inhospitable part of the world since 1959.

SANAE IV

Over 40 governments maintain research stations in Antarctica, including South Africa. In fact, we were one of the original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, which established freedom of scientific investigation on the frozen continent. Our current base in Antarctica is South African National Antarctic Expedition IV (SANAE IV), situated on a ridge 80 kilometres inland. As the name indicates, SANAE IV is the fourth iteration of our Antarctic base, the previous having been buried in snow. The base has been around since 1997, mostly because someone had the bright idea to raise the structure on stilts, allowing snow to blow through underneath the structure and so prevent the base from getting snow-locked.

SANAE IV is permanently staffed by a team of researchers and support personnel who are transported during the summer months by the Department of Environmental Affairs’ icebreaking ship, the SA Agulhas II. During this time, enough fuel, equipment and food must be stored to last until the next year’s resupply mission. Field work can only be conducted during the summer months, so the only research programmes that are allowed to continue into the winter months is the physical sciences.

Each expedition is made up of a doctor, two diesel mechanics, an electrical, mechanical and electronics engineer, a meteorologist and two physicists. Power is generated by three large diesel generators, but if you want water you have to shovel snow into a melter first. Even though the base features an advanced heating and air-conditioning system (and walls half a metre thick), interior temperatures hover around 18°C even in the summer months.

Scientific value of Antarctica

Antarctica is unlike any other continent on Earth. It is unique in being a static landmass composed in some parts of solid ice four kilometres thick. But the frozen wastes of this sometimes stunningly beautiful place are not for the faint of heart; average winter temperatures hover around -50°C and winds, egged on by low-pressure systems near the coastline, often reach 100km/h.

There are invaluable lessons to be learned from Antarctica, not least from the ice sheet, which holds 61 percent of the world’s fresh water reserves in 85% of the world’s ice. For one thing, the ice first started forming around 45 million years ago, meaning that a wealth of information about planetary conditions during different timeframes have been perfectly preserved in the ice. There is also the matter of the famous hole in the ozone layer, which is caused by the seasonal thinning of the Earth’s atmosphere, allowing large amounts of harmful ultraviolet light to reach the surface.

Antarctica also has a profound effect on the globe’s climate and ocean systems. Essentially, the Antarctic region acts as a giant heat sink for the rest of the planet, absorbing the brunt of global warming and climate change. This regulatory role extends to the oceans, since atmospheric changes in Antarctica effect the speed and direction of global winds which in turn impacts the upwelling, mixing, and movement of ocean currents.

The continent’s unique atmospheric conditions are also perfect for meteorological observations and the detection of cosmic rays, particularly particles such as protons that are spewed across light years of interstellar space by extremely violent cosmic forces like the jets of energy emitted from supermassive black holes.

Research activities

SANAE IV consists of three linked, double-story modules, each 44 metres long. A-block, the southern module, has a medical facility, two physics labs and a wet lab for the testing of fluid samples. Current research projects being undertaken there include a study into biocomplexity and numerous cosmological projects, as well as a study on landscape and biosphere interactions in Antarctica.

A-block is where most of the scientific activity takes place and B-block is mostly a recreation and accommodation facility. C-block, the northernmost part of the base, features a gym and hanger facility, as well as North West University’s (NWU) expensive neutron monitors. These are maintained by a team deployed from NWU and scan the skies to monitor the intensity of cosmic rays. A particular focus of the neutron monitors in C-block is the study of solar flares and their accompanying coronal mass ejections.

The neutron monitors work in quite an interesting way. Firstly, a tube filled with an easily ionisable gas is kept at a high potential (2800V). When a high-energy neutron passes through the tube and collides with the gas molecules, the molecule is hit with enough energy to release electrons from its valence structure, leaving a positively charged ion and an electron. The electric field created by the large potential prevents the ion and electron from recombining and pulls each one to its opposite polarity. The electrons reaching the anode will generate a pulse proportional to the energy level of the particle it collided with. These pulses are then recorded as events.

Another recurring research project at SANAE IV is the operation of high-tech ground-penetrating radar systems to look beneath the ice sheet. This is an important part of the ongoing monitoring of the continent’s response to climate change and provides insight into the changing patterns of ice accumulation on the continent and the reasons for those changes.

Hard work but rewarding

According to NWU’s Cobus van der Merwe, the technician currently responsible for maintaining the neutron monitors, the workload at the base gets to be quite intense. “You would think that spending a year in the most remote place on Earth, with nothing to distract you but you, will leave you with countless hours to fill,” van der Merwe said. “However, this has not been the case.” Even when not engaged in scientific research, team members have to perform chores around the base, in van der Merwe’s case bulldozing ice out of the way to create a parking lot for SANAE IV’s vehicles.

Everyone who spends an extended period of time at the base notes that, although circumstances are often difficult, the experience has a lasting positive effect. “This continent is hostile but beautiful,” communications engineer Hloni Rakoteli said. “You see nothing for miles except the pure white and ridges here and there.” Electrical engineer Bo Orton, meanwhile, emphasised that one must respect the elements in Antarctica or risk being overwhelmed.

“You quickly learn here that the weather is king and most things are related to how the weather is looking,” Orton said. “You have to appreciate how fast and powerful the wind can be and how low the temperature can drop. If you don’t respect the weather here, the wind will flick you off Antarctica’s shoulder as you would a fly and your ego will vanish with you.”

Most of the SANAE IV scientists hope to go back home with plenty of stories to tell their loved ones. Nonetheless, the overwhelming nature of the experience often leaves Antarctic visitors at a loss for words. “I already know now that when I get home and people ask how it was, all I’ll be able to say is ‘you had to be there’,” Orton noted.

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