For many scientists, having the opportunity to work in Antarctica is a dream come true. Its remoteness and extreme environment make it, arguably, the most untouched region on the planet. Today, more than 20 nations maintain research facilities there under a treaty that dedicates the entire continent to peaceful scientific investigation. In this video segment adapted from NOVA, see how the members of one research team cope with the inhospitable climate and other environmental hazards during their stay.
Due to its polar location and high average elevation, all but a small part of Antarctica remains below freezing all year round. So perhaps it's not surprising that Antarctica's only native land animals are tiny invertebrates — mites, ticks, and nematode worms — that have natural antifreeze in their bodies.
Despite the difficult conditions, more than 4,000 people work on the continent in the summer, and 1,000 brave the dark winter. Although a few of the 40 or so permanent research stations feature private rooms and many modern conveniences, some are little more than huts offering only the most basic shelter for scientists and support personnel.
While early investigators in Antarctica were primarily concerned with mapping the continent and monitoring the weather, modern-day researchers engage in activities across diverse scientific fields. In addition to high-profile studies of the ozone layer and global warming, other subjects are being examined. For example, buried under a sheet of ice that in some places is three miles thick are geographic features similar to those of other continents — including mountain ranges, canyons, high plateaus, and lowland plains. The ice itself contains a climate record dating back 500,000 years or more, and mountaintops rising through the ice can expose fossils dating back 200 million years when Antarctica was still a central part of the ancient supercontinent Gondwanaland.
Oceanographers study the currents that form in the cold southern ocean that surrounds Antarctica and affect both marine ecosystems and Earth's climate patterns; astronomers observe the universe through some of the planet's clearest air; and biologists study plants, animals, and microorganisms to see how they have adapted for life in such harsh conditions.
The work comes with its share of hazards. In addition to the extreme cold, snow kicked up by wind can easily disorient field researchers. What's more, large regions of ice sheets, called ice streams, move so fast that friction causes large cracks, or crevasses to open up in the ice. The crevasses can be 50 feet wide and more than 100 feet deep. Snow-covered crevasses can easily swallow up people and the equipment they operate.
Plan a survival pack for severe Antarctic weather in this NOVA classroom activity.
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