Competition Winner – Jade

Jade is not only the third winner of our science writing competition, having entered the 16-18 year old category, she is also a double award winner, having also won this category in 2020. She is 17 years old and from the UK. Jade’s piece about the science of the Antarctic was incredibly well written and captivating. Another impressive piece from someone so young, congratulations Jade. Jade is also a keen scicommer, writing a blog called NEVER TRUST AN ATOM and even has a YouTube channel now!

Science at the South Pole:
What Antarctica can tell us about our world and the universe

We first set foot on Antarctica 200 years ago, the last continent to be reached by humanity. It wasn’t an easy discovery: efforts began in the late 1400s when Spanish explorers sailed past the southernmost points of Africa and South America (and later Australia), proving that any southern land that existed must be a continent in its own right. This prompted exploration further and further south until the first sighting of, and subsequent landing on, mainland Antarctica in the early 1800s.

The relentless exploration slowed after James Clark Ross (discoverer of the world’s largest ice shelf and Mt Erebus) announced there was little of note, but luckily interest was renewed later in the century when a Royal Geographical Society lecture spurred on the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” that culminated in the 1910-11 expeditions to the South Pole.

Mount Erebus | National Geographic Society
Image: Mount Erebus, on Ross Island, Antarctica, photograph by Tom Laurie, MYSHOT; via https://www.nationalgeographic.org/photo/rfire-erebus/

What did they find there?
Antarctica is a huge continent, nearly double the size of Australia, and more or less untouched by humanity (at least until we started polluting the globe with plastic and greenhouse gases). It’s almost entirely covered by ice sheets averaging over a mile thick (but can be triple that in East Antarctica), which meet the sea and float above it, forming huge ice shelves that can break off into icebergs. Under that ice are teeming communities of sea life unlike anywhere else, and back on land ice conceals towering mountains, volcanoes, and rift valleys offering vital clues to Antarctica’s geological history.

West Antarctica is a mishmash of microplates, with tall volcanoes and deep basins causing much of it to be below sea level! The volcanoes are associated with the same rift valley system responsible for the stark elevation differences, and are remarkably similar to those found in the East-African Rift Valley, suggesting it is powered by a mantle plume too. This plume also fuels Mt Erebus, which has been continually erupting and filling its lava lake ever since its discovery!

East Antarctica couldn’t be more different: an ancient continental plate, 40km thick with it’s only feature the Antarctic Plateau- a barren plain 1000km across, 3000m above sea level. Dividing these 2 regions are the Transantarctic Mountains, which despite reaching over 4km tall, are almost entirely covered by ice!

Scientists from many different fields brave the cold to research here!
This ice was formed from millions of years of accumulating snow, each frozen layer trapping bubbles of ancient atmosphere. Like the rings of a tree, each layer takes us a year back in time, so scientists can dig up cores of ice to analyse the changing climate of the past, in an attempt to understand the impacts of anthropogenic climate change. The tunnels left by ice cores can reveal even more wondrous workings beneath the ice, such as life: both in the freezing, super salty Antarctic sea, 1500km inland and 900m below the ice shelf, so far from any known energy source (photosynthesizers); and in Lake Vostok, a subglacial lake potentially completely sealed off from the outside world for millions of years, where  conditions are probably closer to the subsurface oceans of Europa and other outer moons than anywhere beyond Antarctica on earth!

Image: artist’s cross-section of Lake Vostok’s drilling, courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Vostok#/media/File:Lake_Vostok_drill_2011.jpg

As well as astrobiology, Antarctica is a great place for other space research, conducted the more typical way- with telescopes! Three factors make Antarctica a great place for astronomy:
1. Little light pollution
2. High elevation: being 2800m above sea level, so has less atmosphere to look through. This effect is intensified by centrifugal force from the earth spinning pulling the atmosphere to the equator.
3. Very dry: Antarctica may be covered in snow, but there is very little precipitation, making it as dry as a desert, so there are fewer clouds to block the stars.

The 6-month long nights allows for long observing runs to reveal the secrets of the distant past at long wavelengths- perfect for using the CMB to map the early universe. The South Pole Telescope looks at some of the universe’s largest objects, but beneath the ice lies a larger telescope, looking for fundamental particles called neutrinos. Though most zip through the earth as if it is no different to the vacuum of space, they occasionally interact with ice, releasing cascades of particles detectable by the IceCube detector. Its discoveries could shed light on astronomy’s greatest mysteries like dark energy!

Image: The Aurora Australis above the South Pole Telescope at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Keith Vanderlinde / NSF; via https://cosmosmagazine.com/space/the-south-pole-telescope/

The fundamental human desire for exploration is what brought us to Antarctica, and we stayed out of sheer curiosity, in exploration of new science. Now, these expeditions are necessary, fuelled by desperate hope that the Science at the South Pole will teach us what the future holds in terms of climate change, and what we can do to mitigate and cope with it.

Sources
https://volcanohotspot.wordpress.com/2017/08/09/antarctica-1-introduction-to-antarcticas-volcanoes/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Vostok
https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2616/core-questions-an-introduction-to-ice-cores/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antarctica (and associated pages)
https://pole.uchicago.edu/public/science.html
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/140319-antarctica-big-bang-inflation-telescope-south-pole-astronomy
http://www.mantleplumes.org/P%5E4/P%5E4Chapters/MorganP4ElectronicSupp1.pdf

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