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 Be sure to check out the weather reports and view the webcam.

Expedition Map


Fairbanks, Alaska
Fairbanks vs. New York City After traveling through 4 time zones and across thousands of miles (roughly 4200!), I arrived safely in Fairbanks, Alaska. We have been experiencing some pretty cold temperatures in New York this winter, but as I stepped outside the airport and felt my nose sting with 20 below air temperatures, I knew I had made it to the right place. I got into a taxi and drove down icy streets to my hotel. Looking out the window, I was amazed to be here. Let the adventure begin! The view of Fairbanks, Alaska from my hotel window. Going Through Phases in Alaska When...
Back to grading papers
Jumping into Teaching I finally arrived back to Austin on the evening of January 6th. After a lovely weekend with my fiance, I returned to the classroom eager to see my students and colleagues again. I shared my stories and adventures with my students, although they were already familiar with them thanks to the online journals they read and our skype sessions. Michelle returns to teaching in Austin and spends weekends grading papers instead of exploring Antarctica. Notice her Antarctica-themed t-shirt! Using Antarctica in my lessons When I returned to teach, we had just started a unit...
Michelle outside Akaroa
A day in Akaroa I spent my last day in New Zealand in a town called Akaroa, a small town that sits along a bay, inside an eroded crater of an ancient volcano. Natives to New Zealand, called Maori, named the town Akaroa, which means long harbor. This is because it sits along a long waterfront. The 84 kilometer drive to Akaroa was beautiful. I spent hours hiking through lush forests, visiting old cemeteries and sitting at the harbor watching black swans, geese and other birds find food in the water. Michelle stands at the top of the volcanoes, overlooking the harbor of Akaroa. Michelle...
Loading cargo
Last moments on the ice This morning at 3:00 a.m., I watched the C-17 cargo jet land on the sea ice on the outskirts of McMurdo Station. The sun was hidden behind mountains and I tried to take in my last moments on the ice. After passengers arriving to McMurdo boarded the Terra Bus and cargo was unloaded, we boarded the plane and found seats along the walls of the plane. Cargo gets loaded into the rear of the C-17. Photo courtesy of Mr. Johnson. A picture of the C-17 that took us back to New Zealand. Photo courtesy of Mr. Johnson. Passengers board the C-17 on their way back to New...
Ceremonial South Pole
Travel update TBD are the words I keep seeing on the television screens next to my scheduled flight to ChristChurch. To Be Determined. The snow has stopped, but thick clouds still cover Ross Island. Thankfully, my time at the South Pole has taught me patience. When people ask me if I'm flying to New Zealand tonight, I tell them I'm not sure. Hopefully I will make it home, but the weather determines everything! Geographic South Pole Ceremony One exciting event that I was able to participate in at the South Pole was the ceremony to re-establish the geographic South Pole. Every year, a...

Expedition Resources

Project Information

Dates: 11 December 2011 to 5 January 2012
Location: South Pole Station and AGO remote site, Antarctica

Meet the Team

Michelle Brown's picture
State College, PA
United States

Michelle is excited to return to the ice for a second time with the research team! Michelle is a former middle and high school science teacher and math/science instructional coach. She currently does consultant work in equity in education and is a remote curriculum specialist, while raising her 1 year old daughter. She plans to pursue a degree in equity in science education upon returning from Antarctica.

Andrew Gerrard's picture
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Newark, NJ
United States

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.

Robert Melville's picture
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Newark, NJ
United States

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.

Andrew Stillinger's picture
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Newark, NJ
United States

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.

Alan Weatherwax's picture
Siena College
Loudonville, NY
United States

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.

Latest Comments

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The hot water is so close to being steam, that throwing it into the air causes it to break up into tiny droplets? It's really interesting how the hot water turned into that rather than the cold water...
I think that the hot water works well for this experiment due to the fact that the molecules are moving more quickly and are spread apart. There is more space in between each of the molecules and a...
(!!!) I think the hot water works better because it evaporates more quickly than cold water. It then begins to cool down and condense. In cold air, the molecules are more dense which means they take...
I think the hot water works better because it evaporates more quickly than cold water. It then begins to cool down and condense. In cold air, the molecules are more dense which means they take much...