Grand Lake plays host to Antarctic ice researchers
March 1, 2016
Few places on earth are as inhospitable as Antarctica.
For researchers from the National Snow and Ice Data Collection Center (NSIDC) it's a place of incredible, if austere, beauty. Last week a team of researchers from the NSIDC was in Grand Lake testing out weather monitoring equipment bound for the ice sheets of the southern pole. The equipment was tested on the frozen surface of Grand Lake, an environment that simulates the conditions upon which the equipment will be placed after it is taken south.
Antarctica is a land of extremes. Cold on a barely comprehensible scale and months long stretches of complete darkness form landscapes of endless ice and snow. Throughout the far southern continent and especially on ice shelves that meet the sea scientists monitor an array of weather and climate related information. The landscape supports few habitable outposts so unmanned monitoring stations collect the majority of the data remotely.
The equipment collects information not only on weather and climate for the South Pole region it also gathers data on rates of ice melt both on the surface of the ice and far below where the ice sheets meet the ocean. The stations also monitor ocean currents, temperatures and salinity levels.
Installing each station is a time consuming and expensive process involving multiple months if not years of testing, transportation and site preparation. Stations are often installed as part of expeditions when multiple monitoring platforms are erected on a single journey. Unfortunately the high cost of traveling and shipping freight to Antarctica makes it nearly impossible to return to a station in the event of a malfunction.
That means the equipment has to be rigorously tested before it is put into the field. Over the course of multiple months researchers subject the equipment to extreme conditions in cold and heat chambers and open world environments.
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"We run every type of mode it is going to be in and try to make it fail," said project Engineer Ronald Ross with Polar66 Engineering. "We stress it, lower the voltage and see if it can still operate within the threshold. We heat it up, which can also make it fail; cycle it quickly between hot and cold. Everything that is going to break it, then we can fix it and try and avoid that situation."
After the various electrical, computer and power source components are tested separately the apparatus is assembled and tested in outdoor environments. The NSIDC team brought the weather station to Grand Lake to test the monitoring equipment on ice in a relatively deep-water environment.
They arrived in Grand Lake last week and set up the monitoring station towards the center of the lake. They began running tests with the equipment but the team wasn't looking for anything in particular.
As Marin Klinger, a Research Assistant for the NSIDC, put it, "this is an engineering test for the equipment and a logistics test. We are not going to actually collect any data and analyze any data on Grand Lake. We are just going to make sure it is consistent with what we would expect so that when we deploy it to Antarctica we would know that the system is working."
After completing their tests on Grand Lake the team of researchers will take the equipment out onto the open ocean to test its sensors in salt water. It is still however likely to be multiple years before the system is taken to Antarctica. As Rob Bauer, an Associate Scientist at the NSIDC, explained. Conservative estimates would be for the system to head south in 2018 or even 2020.
Bauer oversees team safety on expeditions in Antarctica and explained the logistical challenges associated with installing the monitoring stations and the processes for gathering funding for the projects means each expedition is planned out far in advance. Eventually though the very system that was tested on the frozen surface of Grand Lake will rest in the frozen expanse of Antarctica and when it does tests like those conducted on Grand Lake will mean the difference between success and costly failure.