Noon But Not Quite High

January 14, 2010  |   Antarctic Peninsula Project, Blog   |   admin  |   0 Comment

Three scientists talking:

“How fast do trees grow in your model?”

“I can make them grow very fast in my model.”

“But I can´t in my model.”

The Hostal Bustamente is two blocks from the beach, a two-story building that I gather goes back to the days before the Panama Canal when Punta Arenas was a major port.  Two Chilean presidents slept there, or so I´m told.  Our room is on the first floor front.  It´s a triple—three beds—with a bathroom down the hall.  It’s also large enough to be the storehouse for most of the fresh food the group bought for King George Island, which has been stacked in the corner.  My two scientists arrived last night along with my missing bag.  Since the latter was a rolling duffel with 20 pounds of gear, I was rather relieved at its appearance.

Ning Zeng, a soft-spoken professor of atmospheric science, contacted me more than five years ago after I had blitzed a dozen or so research institutes with a pitch about Wilderness Research Foundation.  Ning is affiliated with the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center of the University of Maryland.  Married with two small children, a boy and a girl, he has arrived without fanfare at an intriguing insight about carbon dioxide build-up and glacial cycles.  When glaciers advance, they advance over trees, soil and vegetation, all of which are compounded of carbon.  The glaciers compress and bury the naturally occurring carbon as they advance.  What happens to that buried carbon, Ning asks, when the glaciers recede?  He suspects that when the buried carbon is exposed it dissipates back into the atmosphere, accounting for a significant part of the increase in carbon dioxide that currently obtains.

Many, if not most, of the scientists in the modern world are modelers.  So is Ning.  Modelers use computers to approximate patterns in the real world.  Ning is an unusual modeler in that he wants to get out into the field and seek evidence for the theory he´s developed.  He hikes, skis and plays tennis, but has never been to the polar regions.  Ning was born 44 years ago in southwestern China and spent exactly half his life in his native country.  He came to the US at the age of 22 to continue his education and has remained here ever since.  He’s published papers on his buried carbon hypothesis but hasn´t trumpeted it in the news media, which is characteristic, because the only thing loud about him is his snoring.  But he may be on the verge of a significant research finding.  He’s coming to King George Island to prospect for ancient carbon on the rim of the glacier just north of Bellingshausen Station, the rim being the area from which the glacier has “recently” receded.  Accompanying him as research assistant is Jay Gregg, a cheerful, angular fellow from Golden, Colorado, who has just finishing up his PhD at his University of Maryland.

The three of us went out to dinner late last night.  I should have been sound asleep, after 24 hours of sedentary travel, but being in an unfamiliar land on an appealing quest gives you a surprising lift.  We spoke about the old explorers and the polar regions.  Ning started out as a meteorologist.  Moving spoons and napkins around on the table for illustration, he explained why weather systems generally move from west to east in both the northern and southern hemispheres, but for different reasons.

Another team of researchers here—Les Werner and his research assistant, Chris Johnson—are looking at what happens to soils and microorganisms over time when the glaciers recede.  We also have a director of a Russian physics institute in the party and a German geologist.  Listening to them compare notes with Ning and Jay after breakfast this morning at the hostal, I could imagine myself at Little America in 1929 or 1934 when the scientists of the Byrd expeditions talked shop.  The King George Island summer field school was principally organized by two additional Russian scientists, Irina, who has been to Antarctica three times, and Vladmir who is based at the University of Alaska and works in the Arctic but has never visited the Antarctic.  Vladmir and Irina are nice, quiet, smiling people, smaller than their compatriots, such as Sacha, a reserved and lengthy graduate student who gives his height as “two meters” (6’6”).  Vladmir has gray hair and green eyes, and exudes a comfortable sense of knowing what he’s doing.  Irina doesn´t look like the James Bond version of Russian women, but none of us would be here without her.  Other than me, the only non-scientist is Lindsay Bartholomew of the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, who is here organizing the educational outreach.  I should say, non-practicing scientist: she has a degree in physics.

Most of us went out for lunch as a group today and an interesting topic of discussion was:  “In what direction is your shadow cast at noon in the southern hemisphere?”  In the northern hemisphere, the sun is due south at noon and your shadow points to true north.  The discrepancy between your shadow and the direction the compass needle points to tells you at a glance the error—or declination—between the magnetic reading and the true reading.  Things are topsy-turvy in the southern hemisphere.  At noon, the sun is due north and your shadow points due south.  Or at least it’s supposed to.  We were looking up at the sun and down at our watches and shadows today as we passed the central plaza.  But there was a hitch.

At high noon in Punta Arenas, the sun is not directly overhead.  It took some figuring, but we finally realized that local time here is not set according to the local meridian of longitude.  The Chileans set their clocks two hours ahead of what ought to be local time in Punta Arenas.  So “noon” and the solar apogee actually occurs at 2 PM.  God knows why.

Tomorrow we board a military aircraft for the Antarctic, weather permitting.  We were told to be packed, when we go to bed tonight, to be ready to depart the moment the phone rings.

Sheldon Bart
Wilderness Research Foundation
© 2010

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