bundled-up Smalley shares a smile. Antarctica's average
annual temperature is just -58°F.
University of Memphis researcher Robert Smalley is not one
to live on the edge. In fact, he considers himself to be rather
conservative. But when it comes to helping save the world
from natural disasters, the associate professor of geophysics
at the Center for Earthquake Research and Information will
venture to any length even if it means traveling to
the end of the earth.
Smalley helped The U of M lay claim to a piece of the worlds
most famous chunk of ice by conducting research that would
allow civilization to prepare for a natural disaster.
He and five colleagues from the University of Hawaii and
the University of Texas at Austin traveled to Antarctica to
study the movement of the bedrock beneath the West Antarctic
Ice Sheet (WAIS). Because the bedrock beneath the ice sheet
is below sea level, the WAIS is unstable and could collapse
or slide into the ocean. This would result in massive flooding
in low-lying coastal areas, causing serious economic and social
consequences. If we can contribute to predicting if,
when and how fast the WAIS could collapse, the at-risk areas
could prepare, Smalley says.
Smalleys project, known as The West Antarctic GPS Network
(WAGN) and funded by the National Science Foundation, uses
the Global Positioning System (GPS) to track the horizontal
and vertical movements of the bedrock beneath the ice sheet.
These movements of the earths crust are related to both
plate tectonics and changes in the thickness of the ice sheet,
and can affect its stability. GPS is a precise satellite-based
Smalley and his team planted four GPS stations along the
Transarctic Mountains in Antarctica; subsequent missions will
place up to 12 more on several other mountain ranges in West
Antarctica. After processing the GPS data they collect, Smalley
and his colleagues can map and interpret the patterns of movement.
Data could be drawn from the research to help predict the
movement of the ice sheet and whether it will move out to
sea in a catastrophic collapse.
Smalley says that just the nature of doing research in such
a remote area of the world was an adventure in itself. He
says that Antarctica is the coldest, highest, driest and most
In Antarctica, you are completely at the mercy of Mother
Nature, especially when you are off base in the field,
Smalley says. Theres a lot of hurry up and
wait and the cold, altitude and wind slow you down both
physically and mentally. Patience is important.
We would have breakfast at 7 a.m., and then wait for
a good time to fly out for our field research, he continues.
Sometimes it would be as late as 7 p.m. before the pilot
would determine that the weather conditions were appropriate
for flight. Wed load 1,000 pounds of equipment into
the plane and sometimes not get back until midnight. We would
then get up at 6 a.m. and do it all over again.
The team began its journey in Christchurch, New Zealand,
followed by a flight to McMurdo Station, the largest base
in Antarctica. With a population of about 1,200, McMurdo is
similar to a remote mining camp. Such facilities as dormitories,
administrative buildings, stores and warehouses make up the
Only about 10 to 20 percent of the people at McMurdo
or the Pole are scientists or beakers, a nickname
used by the support staff, Smalley says. These
support staffers a crew of cooks, mechanics, technicians
and the like represent the bulk of the population.
It was in McMurdo that Smalley and his team went back to
school not to learn math or science but rather
An extensive cold-weather survival training session
is mandatory for anyone going off the bases for fieldwork,
says Smalley. We learned by actually making snow walls,
igloo-like snow shelters and snow trenches a sort of
coffin that can save your life in blizzards.
One of the hidden dangers of the ice that can bring about
a most horrendous death is found in crevasses, according to
Smalley. These deep ice trenches traverse much of the Antarctic
landscape and are often covered with weak snow bridges that
make them invisible.
Crevasses are extremely dangerous, he says. It
is essential that everyone is constantly aware of them. If
you fall into one, you are effectively in free-fall and by
the time you get to the bottom, you are going very fast. The
sides are smooth and slippery and come together very gradually.
You get corked in hard. Often, rescuers cant
squeeze down to where you are.
As part of the training, the scientists were lowered about
60 feet into a crevasse that was about 10 feet wide. We
decided to follow the rules and stick to the flagged paths
carefully, Smalley says. Shortcuts can be fatal.
After McMurdo, the team relocated to the Amundsen-Scott South
Pole Station, which served as base camp for the expedition.
Inhabited by about 200 people, the Pole is made up of a few
buildings, which are covered by a dome that acts as a wind-break.
Unprotected, the buildings would soon fall prey to huge snowdrifts,
much like the first facility built in 1957.
The temperatures at the Pole were about 10 degrees
below zero Fahrenheit when we got there, with wind chills
to about 40 below, he says. The temperature fell
about two degrees per day and was about 40 below with wind
chills of minus 80 degrees by the time we left.
Despite the training and the amenities of the base, Smalley
says the Pole took some getting used to.
For the first couple of days, we were dragging our
butts around because of the 9,000-foot altitude, he
says. Also, the sun shines 24 hours a day during the
summer. I had to fashion a blindfold from a hat to be able
to sleep, Smalley says.
The researcher says that the South Pole is an exact spot
on the earth. But the ice sheet that covers Antarctica is
constantly moving over the ground, and the pole position on
the surface of the ice must be surveyed each year to determine
members look at markers that designate the South Pole's
exact location, which migrates slightly each year
due to the shifting ice.
They install a marker on a stake in the ice,
he says. There is a line of stakes, about 30 feet apart,
heading across the ice representing the position during the
last 20-plus years. Weve tramped all around this years
marker, so I have been to the exact Pole.
The U of M researcher says that surprisingly enough, scientists
and Antarctic workers arent the only ones to boast a
trip to the South Pole.
It is becoming quite the tourist attraction,
he says. A number of record-seekers and adventurers
ski in, and tourists can pay $25,000 for a trip in on a Turboprop-powered
plane for a 30-minute tour of the station.
This year also marked the first time a marathon has been
run at the South Pole. Tourism is actually becoming
a problem, he says. The U.S. South Pole station
is the ultimate backup for rescue, although its not
prepared for this.
Smalley says his team had problems with the weather only
once, when their plane became temporarily stranded in the
field by a storm. We were working at a site thats
about an hour and a half flight from the Pole when an ice
fog blew in, and visibility was lost completely, he
says. When that happens, its like having your
head in a white bucket.
The team sat in the plane for hours before the weather improved
enough for take-off. That is the closest we ever came
to being stuck, he says.
Smalley says he is looking forward to returning to Antarctica
to complete the project. He feels that the knowledge he gains
easily offsets the dangers of life on the ice.
What we are doing may one day help the world prepare
for a major catastrophe, he says. It is all worth