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magazine home > archives > summer 2002 > features

U of M professor Robert Smalley goes south - really, really south - on a one-of-a-kind expedition to study the geology of a remote continent.

The Big Chill
by Niki King

Robert Smalley

A 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 world’s 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.

Smalley’s 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 earth’s 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 navigational system.

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.

Inside the crevasse
Inside the crevasse

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 isolated continent.

“In Antarctica, you are completely at the mercy of Mother Nature, especially when you are off base in the field,” Smalley says. “There’s 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. We’d 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 base.

“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 survival skills.

“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 can’t 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 its position.

South Pole marker

Team 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. We’ve tramped all around this year’s marker, so I have been to the ‘exact’ Pole.”

The U of M researcher says that surprisingly enough, scientists and Antarctic workers aren’t 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 it’s 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 that’s 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, it’s 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 it.”


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