About 500 miles inland from the coast of Antarctica, UVM geologist Tom Neumann looks out the window of a 12-foot-long box on skis being pulled by a tractor.
Probably, no person has ever been to this spot before, he says, speaking by satellite phone. Outside, it's 25 below and plunging. Inside, it's 70 above and the team of scientists he is traveling with are watching a surfing movie.
Antarctica is layered with contradictions. One of the driest places in the world, it holds more than 60 percent of the planet's freshwater in its vast ice sheet. The coldest place in the world, it may shape the consequences of global warming more than any other land mass.
But what these consequences will be remains murky, despite a spate of recent scientific studies. It could be that warmer air, carrying more moisture, will deposit increasing amounts of snow over Antarctica, building up the ice sheet faster than it melts at the coast. Or, it could be that a warming ocean will increase rates of melt and glacial discharge along the coast faster than the interior grows. All of these studies are to be taken with a frozen grain of salt, Neumann believes, since so little is known about East Antarctica's climate history and effect on sea level.
Which is a primary reason that Neumann, an expert on ice flow and polar snow chemistry, is spending three weeks bumping along at six miles per hour (max speed) in a tank-like ice tractor. He's a member of the first scientific trip to East Antarctica since the 1960s, a joint U.S./Norwegian effort funded by the Norwegian Polar Institute and the U.S. National Science Foundation. Neumann is traveling with the team for the first three weeks of a two-month expedition, following a curving 1,800-mile course across the remote Dronning Maud Land, headed for the South Pole.
Along the way, Neumann and his colleagues dig pits in the snow and drill deep ice cores (100–300-feet deep) to be shipped back to the U.S. Ice Core Lab in Denver. His studies of isotopes in the ice serve as a fingerprint of past climates.
This history — read through measurements of the melted ice in a mass spectrometer back in a UVM lab — can't be determined by a high-flying satellite. You've got to go there.
"Is East Antarctic getting bigger or smaller?" Neumann says as the satellite phone hisses and goes dead for the eighth time. After he calls back: "The ice we're collecting now gets us closer to a clear answer."