Thursday, May 1, 2008

Science Lecture

(This is from a "travelogue" e-mail sent out on March 10, 2008)

Hi All,

We had a very cool science presentation last night. In the summer, there are science presentations every Sunday, and most Wednesdays, but in the winter, I didn't think there would be any. This one was a little different-- the USAP (US Antarctic Program) is trying a new "extended season". Some interesting things happen between the light season and the dark season, but very little science has been conducted at that time, for logistical reasons. The station is usually closed for the winter bynow, but the NSF (National Science Foundation) decided to add an Aprilflight so that the "beakers" (scientists) could conduct experiments inthe waning light. They are particularly studying life in frozen lakes inthe McMurdo dry valleys. There is liquid water under the ice, and it's teeming with little bugs. The algae are photosynthetic, but it is known that they must have some other way to make energy in the winter. They switch over to eating bacteria during sunset, but that had never been really studied. There was a British beaker on my flight down, and she's been keeping my apprised of the science they're doing. In one of the experiments, they are bringing back algae, culturing them in the lab,and feeding them dyed bacteria. They kill them, and look at them under a microscope to see if the dyed bacteria are now inside (eaten). So far the algae are not eating "meat", but that's probably because it isn't that dark yet. In another experiment, algae were taken from the lakesback in the 80's. Those have been cultured in the states for all this time, and now they are brought home. They are suspended in "balloons" of dialysis membrane, so they can get viruses and nutrients from the lakewater, but they can't escape. It's kind of mean teasing those poor, homesick little critters like that. All in the name of science, I suppose. The PI (Principal Investigator) is John Priscu(, from MSU in Bozeman (practically a neighbor). He has been coming down here and doing this microbial ecology work for over 24 years. The program is called LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) The presentation also covered other work with bugs in ice and water here. Did you know that 70% of the fresh water on earth is in Antarctica?There are about 150 lakes under the ice sheet, along with rivers of liquid water bigger than the Amazon. At Lake Vostok, the Russians have drilled almost all the way down to the liquid water, and have been trying for years to figure out how to do it. The water is under about 11,000 feet of ice, so it is under incredible pressure. If the drillerspunched through the boundary without special precautions, it would probably kill them all, and spray water 1000' in the air for three days. Not to mention that the Vostok station is at by far the nastiest place on earth. The coldest temperature every recorded was taken there (-129F,in 1983, and that's not a wind chill temp). Yikes. Right now the borehole is full of super-pure kerosene, and they will have to do all sorts of odd things with liquid silicone and special heat-boring equipment toget samples of the lake water without blowing themselves up or getting contamination in the lake, which is the fifth largest lake on earth, by water volume. I love going to those science lectures-- it was always the highlight of my week in the summer. Unfortunately, that'll probably be the last one for eight months or so, and the beakers will all be going home in the middle of April. Then it'll be time to settle down for thelong, cold, dark winter. It should be cool.

Cheers from the Ice,


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