Space Weather Monitoring on the Antarctic Plateau
What Are They Doing?
Michelle and the research team supported a project that has been collecting important data since the early 1990's. The Polar Experiment Network for Geospace Upper atmosphere Investigations project (or PENGUIn for short) is gathering information in Antarctica to further understand the sun and space influences on the Earth’s upper atmosphere. This network is supported by the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs and is a collaborative effort to better understand the high latitude atmospheres of Earth and its response to conditions in space.
To do this, scientists created Automatic Geophysical Observatories (AGOs) that are active at five locations in Antarctica. These remote observatories house nearly identical instrumentation that measure atmospheric weather conditions at the poles. This includes the Earth’s magnetic forces, aurora activity, and the influence of phenomena in space weather. All of the AGO sites are on the Antarctic Plateau but record different conditions geographically. For instance, AGO site III records temperatures of 110°F below zero!
The research team visited one of the AGO sites by traveling on a four hour flight from South Pole Station in a highly maneuverable and versatile Twin Otter plane. Next, the team set up the camp, cook stoves, and started on their tasks. They had to be in good physical condition because much of the observatory was covered by snow and needed to be dug out. Often equipment is totally covered, so the team brought ground-penetrating radar to help find it. During their stay, the team made sure all of the different instrumentation was working properly and collecting reliable data. How is it that this data can be collected at such a remote location, you ask? The observatories are going green; running on solar panels and wind power! The team also made sure these energy sources were functioning properly.
The focus of the team’s expedition was to travel to the remote AGO site and providing support for the system. Supporting these observatories is crucial to the study of interactions between the magnetic fields of the sun and of the earth. Learning more can help us understand the potential disturbances in these fields that can disrupt radio communications or our power systems, and even take out satellites that orbit close to earth. With Michelle’s help, the team communicated the importance of understanding the links between our high latitude conditions here on Earth and weather conditions found in space.
Where Are They?
The team worked from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica – the southernmost continually inhabited place on the planet. The South Pole station is one of three year-around U.S. stations operated by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The South Pole Station sits at the Earth's axis on a shifting continental ice sheet several miles thick. This unique research site has extremely dry and cold air and is perfectly suited for conducting projects ranging from cosmic observations to seismic and atmospheric studies. At an elevation of 2,835 meters (9,300 feet), South Pole has an average monthly temperature in the austral summer of -28°C (-18°F); in the austral winter, the average monthly temperature is -60°C (-76°F).
The South Pole is reached by plane from McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica from October through February. From February to October, the station has about 50 people that over-winter at the station and the planes no longer fly to the station due to the cold temperatures.
PolarTREC teacher, Michelle Brown, and the research team did not stay there for too long, their goal was to visit a remote space weather observatory. The closest observatory is 300 miles from South Pole Station, while others are nearly 800 miles away!
Learn more about the South Pole Station here http://www.southpolestation.com/. Be sure to check out the weather reports and view the webcam.
Meet the Team
As a child, Michelle Brown never imagined that she would ever be working with scientists. She was a science naysayer until her junior year at Northeastern University, where she was well into a Bachelor's in English Literature. However, Ms. Brown fell in love with science on a geology field trip to the volcanoes and glaciers of Iceland, and has been learning about science ever since. Ms. Brown received her Master's in Science Education from the University of Texas at Austin in 2006, while at the same time discovering a passion for sedimentology. She remained in Austin, and teaches 6th and 7th grade science at O. Henry Middle School.
Andrew Gerrard is a Professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and Deputy Director of the Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research. He received his BS in physics from the State University of New York at Geneseo in 1996 and his MS and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from The Pennsylvania State University in 1998 and 2002, respectively. His current research interests include remote sensing of the middle and upper atmosphere, atmospheric and magnetospheric dynamics, and synoptic observations of coupled systems.
Bob Melville did his undergraduate training at the University of Delaware and went on to finish a Ph.D. in Engineering at Cornell. He worked at Bell Labs and then taught electrical engineering at Columbia University before joining the United States Antarctic Program in 2004. He is currently employed by the New Jersey Institute of Technology as a staff engineer to support geophysical research in Antarctica. Bob was a member of the 2005-2006 winter-over crew at the South Pole. He is also an extra-class amateur radio operator WB3EFT.
Andy Stillinger is currently employed as a staff engineer for NJIT in support of geophysical research in Antarctica. Andy has done two tours with the USAP working on the Automatic Geophysical Observatories and will return to the Ice for 2011-2012 season.
Professor Weatherwax is an internationally recognized authority on the interaction of planetary and terrestrial radio emissions, both natural and man-made, with space environment. At present, and together with his research team of students and engineers, he directs optical, radio, and magnetic experiments in Antarctica, Canada, and Greenland. The Weatherwax Glacier in Antarctica is named in his honor to recognize his research efforts on that continent.