By Melissa Hanson
LOWELL — University of Massachusetts Lowell professor Kate Swanger and postdoctoral researcher Kelsey Winsor want to learn about past climates, a goal that led them on a six-week study tour of Antarctica, where they researched sediment and glaciers in temperatures as cold as 15 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
The two, along with a science-data analyst from Brown University, a graduate student from the University of Pennsylvania and a geophysicist from GeoTek Alaska, spent weeks in the frigid atmosphere, digging holes, collecting ice samples and using radar to get an idea of how much ice was underneath their camp in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, an area south of New Zealand.
Swanger, a geology professor and the principal investigator on the trip, led the team in hopes of seeing how climate change affected that area in the past, and what that means for the future.
‘‘I think it’s very important that we go and understand past climates, especially ones that might be similar to what we’re facing today or what we might face in the future, where we don’t have humans in the mix,’’ said Swanger, who has been to Antarctica seven times. ‘‘So a lot of my work has looked at past warm intervals before humans in order to say, ‘Well, this is what climate does naturally or what it has done naturally,’ and that at least sets a groundwork for understanding what’s happening now and how much of it might be natural and how much of it might be human-induced.’’
To do so, the team set up tents in the McMurdo area of Antarctica, a dry, rocky terrain surrounded by mountains with ice, streams and ponds scattered across the land, which is inhabited by microbes. Because the area is not covered in ice, as much of Antarctica is, the glaciers buried under the sediment there are more stable and do not melt as quickly, Swanger said.
‘‘If you’re looking at climate change in terms of how glaciers are responding, these deposits will respond differently, so they’ll tell you a different story,’’ the professor said.
The study was funded by a $330,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and lasted from October to December. It was Winsor’s first time in Antarctica.
‘‘It’s totally silent, and there’s no one around,’’ said Winsor, who has previously studied the climate in Greenland. ‘‘You’re physically working very hard every day.’’
That means digging many holes to find clean ice, then coring out about 6 feet to study later. Winsor also took measures of topsoil, and the researchers will try to discover the age of the ice and soil deposits.
The team admits that the research is complicated— and it doesn’t end there. They have to wait until late March to see their samples, as the ship that will bring the collections back to the United States has to wait for ice to break up in the waters around Antarctica.
Despite the grueling labor and intense cold, the study did have its fun moments, like when Winsor decided to take a bite out of some slushy ice from a pond where she was collecting samples.
‘‘One (sample) was turning to slush even though it was still below freezing, so I tasted it,’’ Winsor said, laughing. ‘‘It was really salty. It didn’t taste like regular salt.’’
Swanger noted that the bitter, salty flavor she detected likely indicates that the ice contained potassium.
That is one piece of preliminary information members of the group have collected as they wait for the samples to return. Swanger said she believes the data they collected is from a glacier, and not just natural melt water that froze. Glacial ice is preferred for her research, as it would give a better look at the past climate in the region.
Aside from knowledge, the group took back a strong sense of friendship and a new outlook on companionship. Spending so much time in a completely isolated space, with few resources or distractions, means the group spent all their time together, talking and bonding. Now back in the United States, with easy access to television and Internet, Swanger and Winsor said they feel lonelier here than in the vast emptiness of Antarctica.