Graduate students, professor get ready for Antarctic research trip

Jesse Batson

Jesse Batson

You want to know how three SDSU chemists prepare for a trip to Antarctica?

They use a walk-in freezer.

“So we stand in there in our shorts in front of the fan and say, ‘Okay, this will be a nice day at the South Pole,'” said Dave Ferris, chemistry graduate student.

Ferris, along with graduate student, Drew Budner, and their instructor, Jihong Cole-Dai, will leave this Christmas to drill ice at the earth’s core in Antarctica.

“We’ll be in McMurdo (Antarctic’s largest city) over Christmas and in the South Pole on New Year’s,” Ferris said.

This three-person voyage is focused on studying the Earth’s atmosphere, with the help of funding from the National Science Foundation

“My research is using snow and ice from the cold places of the world to try and understand the history of the atmosphere and the climate environment,” Cole-Dai said. “Obviously, you have to go either to Antarctica or the North Pole to get very good snow and ice samples for this type of work.”

While the North Pole would have provided results as well, Antarctica was best suited for this expedition.

“Because very little goes on there, it’s the most ideal place for this type of work,” Budner said.

The final result is data from the atmosphere.

“We’re taking out a piece of the core -about an eighth of the core – and we’re melting it on an instrument that we have,” Budner said. “Then what we’re looking for is the major volcanic events. You look at the sulfate, which is a chemical in the ice and you follow that signal. It’s got an annual signal. What we look for is a large spike in that and then we’re going to take that portion of the ice and concentrate it.”

Once the drilling is complete, the ice samples will be packaged in cardboard tubes, plastic bags and then in cardboard boxes. The samples will then be flown to McMurdo. After being loaded onto a ship, the ice samples will be taken by boat to New Zealand and then to California, where they will be stored in a truck and driven to Denver. Once in Denver, smaller samples of the core will be flown back to Jihong’s office in Shepard Hall.

Despite the 10,000 foot altitude, the 24-hour sun and the high between 20 and 30 degrees below zero, it is drilling the ice samples that is worrisome for Cole-Dai.

“I’m not worried about any physical risk,” Cole-Dai said. “I’m a little concerned about how our equipment will work in the cold. If there is any concern for me, it would be getting the work done.”

The reason for that worry stems from the fact that the machines and ice-drilling instruments will be kept outside this time around, as Cole-Dai, Budner and Ferris will be camping outside, rather than staying at the station.

“They’re building a new station, so there’s a lot of construction people down there and they asked us to camp,” Ferris said.

Differing from a regular camping trip, the chemists will sleep in translucent tents that can warm up to 30 or 40 degrees.

“There is a warming hut that we cook in, eat in, and socialize in,” Ferris said. “We sleep in the tents, though.”

Living in this unconventional lifestyle for three weeks, five layers of clothing, complete with long johns, parkas, gloves, glacier glasses and boots, will be their standard outfits.

Antarctica is in its six-month summer season during South Dakota’s winter, so the sun will shine 24/7, making it very easy to go snow blind.

“You have to wear glacier glasses whenever you’re outside,” Ferris said.

Cooking will provide a bit more leeway than the clothing options.

“They said you can go anywhere from mac ‘n’ cheese up to steaks,” Ferris said. “It just depends how much work you want to put into it.”