Journey to the bottom of the world

Explorer Ernest Shackleton compared his failure to be first to touch the South Pole to reaching “the naked soul of man.”

For University of Utah Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Dan Reed, a trip to Antarctica Nov. 30 through Dec. 10, 2019, while much less fraught, still was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see and understand the vast scientific opportunities—and life-and-death precipices—the southernmost tip of the globe offers.

“This is why we do what we do,” Reed said. “Research is about exploring the great unknown, and the hope and the success of adding a small piece to the great mosaic of human knowledge.”

Reed and two other National Science Foundation Board members—University of Vermont President Suresh Garimella and University of Utah Ombudsman and associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy Maureen Condic—spent just over a week in Antarctica meeting researchers, reviewing the station’s aging infrastructure and traversing some of the same terrain along the Antarctic’s coastline and South Pole that Shackleton and his team first crossed more than a century ago.

Americans have lived at the geographic South Pole since 1956. Average temperatures at the pole vary from -76 degrees Fahrenheit in July to 18 below in December (southern summer). During the Antarctic summer, up to 150 people live and work there. In the winter, 50 scientists and support staff remain isolated from mid-February to late-October. All food and fuel are transported to the station. Solid waste is transported out.

In 2008, the foundation spent $100 million renovating McMurdo Station—updating its geodesic dome and outbuildings to keep pace with technological advances while also reinforcing infrastructure buffeted over 50 years by temperature extremes. Part of Reed’s job while there was to assess those improvements and future infrastructure needs, including the construction of the new Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science (AIMS) project.

Condic says serving on the foundation board and visiting its research centers, including Antarctica, “ensures that the board is not an isolated governing body, but rather, that our decisions reflect the perspective and input of the scientists who are actually conducting the research.”

The U receives approximately $40 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, distributed over more than 100 projects.

Jim Karner, a professor from the U’s Department of Geology and Geophysics, has taken a team to Antarctica each year for the past 11 years as part of a NASA and NSF-funded program to study meteorites. Antarctic science is transformative, Karner said.

His work at the South Pole follows work done by a Japanese team in 1969 and the U.S. Antarctic Search Meteorites (ANSMET) program. All told, researchers have recovered 23,000 meteorites—from both the moon and Mars—in the Antarctic’s blue ice areas there.

“These meteorites have been paradigm-shifting in planetary science,” Karner said.

Other teams are testing robotic exploration for underwater analysis of the ice shelf, high altitude balloons that host cosmic ray observations and the biology of extreme environments. That work makes the trek to the South Pole worth it, Reed said.

“The most fascinating part of this job—and it’s true here on campus at the U and it’s true around the world—is talking to scholars—faculty and students—about their work, seeing the excitement on their faces and hearing the passion in their voices,” he said. “That’s really the reward for what we do.”

Reed was appointed one of 24 NSF Board members in June 2019 and will serve a six-year term. Each member of the board travels at least once to McMurdo Station and the South Pole.

At the same time, the team managed some sightseeing—visiting Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds, an international heritage site, and watching nesting penguins. And when the group’s return trip to New Zealand was delayed by weather for three days, Reed visited NASA’s high-altitude balloon station.

The highlight of the trip, he said, was talking to the scientists and hardy support staff who spend significant time working in some of the most difficult conditions on the planet. While there, he also met a Utah man who drives visitors from the snow and ice-packed airfields to the McMurdo Station.

“Research rests on the empowerment of people,” Reed said. “It’s really the people that drive the enterprise.”