084 Meet the Natives: The World's Toughest Animal

21 . 01 . 2020

Contributors


Henry Páll Wulff
Expedition Guide, Naturalist
Chris Marquardt
Photographer, Author, Podcaster, Traveler, Educator

Henry Páll Wulff

Expedition Guide, Naturalist

Chris Marquardt

Photographer, Author, Podcaster, Traveler, Educator

Notes

Being Antarctica’s largest native purely terrestrial animal, the Antarctic midge (Belgica antarctica) has the smallest genome in the insect kingdom. The holder of two Guinness Book of World Records entries spends more than half its life frozen. A better understanding of how it does survives freezing temperatures of up to -40 °C could have implications for human health.

083 The Mysterious Blood Red Flow

14 . 01 . 2020

Contributors


Henry Páll Wulff
Expedition Guide, Naturalist
Chris Marquardt
Photographer, Author, Podcaster, Traveler, Educator

Henry Páll Wulff

Expedition Guide, Naturalist

Chris Marquardt

Photographer, Author, Podcaster, Traveler, Educator

Notes

In 1911, during an expedition to the McMurdo Dry Valleys, geologist Thomas Griffith Taylor discovered a strange phenomenon on a remote glacier in East Antarctica: The lily-white ice of the glacier was being stained a deep red by water flowing from deep within the glacier. Taylor had believed it was due to algae discoloring the water, however that hypothesis was never verified.

For many years the source of the red color remained a mystery, as the mean temperature is 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (-17 degrees Celsius) and little glacial melting can be seen at the surface. But in 2017 scientists of the University of Alaska Fairbanks announced that they had discovered the cause.

The deep red coloring is due to oxidized iron in brine salt water, the same process that gives iron a dark red color when it rusts. When the iron-bearing saltwater comes into contact with oxygen the iron oxidizes and takes on a red coloring, in effect dying the water to a striking deep red color - and its name, Blood Falls.

Roughly two million years ago, the Taylor Glacier sealed beneath it a small body of water that contained an ancient community of microbes. Trapped below a thick layer of ice, they have remained there ever since, isolated inside a natural time capsule. Evolving independently of the rest of the living world, these microbes exist in a place with no light or free oxygen and little heat, and are essentially the definition of “primordial ooze.” The trapped lake has very high salinity and is rich in iron. After that, something eerily magical happens with the by-products. The iron in the water interacts with them to restore the sulphates, basically recycling the sulphates for the microbes to break down into oxygen over and over again. A fissure in the glacier allows the subglacial lake to flow out, forming the falls without contaminating the ecosystem within.

Furthermore, the scientists mapped the path of the water that feeds the five-story tall falls and explores how water can exist under the ice, unravel the inner workings of glaciers.

082 Deep Freezes: Drilling for Earth's Climate Archive

07 . 01 . 2020

Contributors


Henry Páll Wulff
Expedition Guide, Naturalist
Chris Marquardt
Photographer, Author, Podcaster, Traveler, Educator

Henry Páll Wulff

Expedition Guide, Naturalist

Chris Marquardt

Photographer, Author, Podcaster, Traveler, Educator

Notes

Given that the coldest ever land temperature was recorded in Antarctica (−89.2°C at Russia’s Vostok Station in 1983), it can be hard to imagine Antarctica as a warm, temperate paradise. But Antarctica hasn’t always been an icy land locked in the grip of a massive ice sheet. In fact, Antarctica was once almost as warm as Melbourne is today.

Researchers have estimated that 40-50 million years ago, temperatures in Antarctica reached up to 17°C. Scientists have also found fossils showing that Antarctica was once covered with verdant green forests and inhabited by dinosaurs!

Ice sheets have one particularly special property. They allow us to go back in time and to sample accumulation, air temperature and air chemistry from another time. Ice core records allow us to generate continuous reconstructions of past climate, going back at least 800,000 years. By looking at past concentrations of greenhouse gasses in layers in ice cores, scientists can calculate how modern amounts of carbon dioxide and methane compare to those of the past, and, essentially, compare past concentrations of greenhouse gasses to temperature.

The large Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have huge, high plateaux where snow accumulates in an ordered fashion. Slow ice flow at the center of these ice sheets (near the ice divide) means that the stratigraphy of the snow and ice is preserved. Drilling a vertical hole through this ice involves a serious effort involving many scientists and technicians and usually involves a static field camp for a prolonged period of time.

Shallow ice cores (100-200 m long) are easier to collect and can cover up to a few hundred years of accumulation, depending on accumulation rates. Deeper cores require more equipment, and the borehole must be filled with drill fluid to keep it open. The drilling fluid used is normally a petroleum-derived liquid like kerosene. It must have a suitable freezing point and viscosity. Collecting the deepest ice cores (up to 3000 m) requires a (semi)permanent scientific camp and a long, multi-year campaign.

Ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica are mainstays of modern climate science. Traditionally, scientists drill in places where ice layers accumulate year after year, undisturbed by glacial flows. The long layer cake records from deep sites in the center of Antarctica reveal how greenhouse gases have surged and ebbed across hundreds of thousands of years. But because heat from the bedrock below can melt the deepest, oldest ice, the approach has not yielded ice any older than 800,000 years, from a core drilled at Antarctica’s Dome C in 2004.

Scientists from Princeton University retracted an ice core drilled in Antarctica that has yielded 2.7-million-year-old ice, an astonishing find 1.7 million years older than the previous record-holder. Bubbles in the ice contain greenhouse gases from Earth’s atmosphere at a time when the planet’s cycles of glacial advance and retreat were just beginning, potentially offering clues to what triggered the ice ages. That information alone makes the value of the sample incredible. [U794u53qxugp27yz581iEvyq2brib2or8wot34d]

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