Antarctica vs. Science – The New York Times


At the start of January, the same month the world marked the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica, scientists on snowmobiles were zipping across its diamantine ice, dragging a rig of metal detectors in their wake. Researchers were hoping to discover a hypothesized cache of iron-rich meteorites, the remnants of ancient asteroids and would-be planets, under the frozen wastes.

But the unexpected roughness of the ice caused the rig to shake itself to pieces. Components were being shorn off, and the electronic circuitry quickly became unstable, with multiple points of failure. On the 18th day in Antarctica’s Outer Recovery Ice Fields, the device collapsed. All the backup metal detectors had been used in earlier repairs. No more repair jobs could resuscitate the unit.

When a vital piece of kit fails, the research often can only continue with MacGyveresque engineering solutions. Or projects end, leaving the prospects of additional discovery uncertain.

Dr. Siegfried recalled a time he drove his snowmobile 45 miles from base to a remote GPS station, bringing along fuel canisters. When he stopped to refuel, he realized that the hand-pump pipe that fed gas to the snowmobile had vanished, forcing him to transmogrify other parts of his kit into a fairly messy — but ultimately effective — fuel transfer system.

This sort of ad hoc repair work is rarely enjoyable, Mr. van Verre said. You quickly miss the luxury of tables and chairs. Gloves are removed when fiddling with small components, leaving hands exposed to a painfully violent chill.

Remarkably, months later, the probe’s mangled remains were found floating listlessly about, its violent encounter with the iceberg dutifully chronicled by its scientific instrumentation. Mr. Statscewich’s experience epitomizes the surprising reality about scientific expeditions to Antarctica: many manage to recover from seemingly terminal technological tribulations.

But if the past is any indication, it will be a long time before Antarctica’s wanton destruction of scientific equipment comes to a close.



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