Gator Engineering in Antarctica

In News, Research & Innovation by Jen Ambrose

If you’re ever in Antarctica, you should stop by and visit at least one of the three U.S.–operated research stations: McMurdo, South Pole, or Palmer. The first two are just a few flights away, (43 or 48 hours of flights, respectively, both by way of Christchurch, New Zealand). Palmer Station is a 12-hour flight, from Miami to Punta Arenas, Chile, and then a 4-5 day journey by sea on the ice-breaking research vessel the RV Laurence M. Gould. No doubt, if you’re planning to go, these are definitely the hot spots, undeniably the places on island where all the action is . . .

By 2015 each of these three stations will have fully functional very low frequency (VLF) and extremely low frequency (ELF) receivers installed. All of these are funded by the National Science Foundation and all of them are maintained by the University of Florida (who is first to get pinged with the receivers’ data, and who then shares it – as requested – with MIT, Standford and a handful of other universities). There are several universities who also maintain equipment at these stations – for communications, optical measurements, monitoring higher frequencies. But UF is the only school responsible for equipment at all three stations.

You might wonder why – when UF has the world-renowned International Center for Lightning Research and Testing (ICLRT) just 45 minutes northeast of Gainesville – it would invest the time to maintain all this equipment in Antarctica? Why? Because it is very, very quiet in Antarctica. It is so quiet that if lightning strikes 45 minutes northeast of Gainesville, you can hear it in Antarctica. (Well, more like if you’re an ELF/VLF receiver you can detect it, in the electromagnetic waveform and in the form of lightning-induced electron precipitation). And then if you’re a lightning researcher at UF, you can quantitatively investigate this data set of waveforms and understand another strata of the phenomenon, like how to differentiate between lightning energy that couples to the ionosphere/magnetosphere and that which couples to the Earth-ionosphere waveguide.

Plus you can solve mysteries! You can use data from these receivers to map the geolocations of atmospheric activity all around the planet. In cases of inexplicable fires or explosions, you can use that information to exhonorate or point the finger at lightning strikes. In 2004, when the space shuttle Columbia burst into flames, Dr. Robert C. Moore was tasked with such forensic work. He was able to rule out the possibility of upper atmospheric lightning, which helped make it clear that the ship’s heat shield had indeed failed.

Dr. Moore is an assistant professor at UF, and a member of the Lightning Research Laboratory. While working towards his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Stanford University, Moore earned a solid reputation for his field work. When he came to UF, he brought his research team with him, opening up a new strata of electrical engineering research and funding.

In January and February of 2010, Moore had his first maintenance visit to McMurdo and South Pole stations. You can read his personal account of this trip at: http://www.vlf.ece.ufl.edu/Antarctica/SP2010.html, and an account of his similar trip two years later at: http://www.vlf.ece.ufl.edu/Antarctica/SP2012.html.

In June of 2013, Moore sent two of his students to Palmer Station to perform annual maintenance and to survey a site for a new ELF receiver. They did all of this, and they saw penguins! Read all about their trip and see pictures at: http://www.vlf.ece.ufl.edu/Antarctica/Palmer2013.html

If you’re not planning a trip to Antarctica any time soon . . . well it makes sense that you might think to visit the ICLRT, instead. It’s certainly a happening place, and much closer to home.  But there are safety issues to consider. Launching rockets into thunderclouds to trigger lightning strikes – while it’s generated an incredible volume of data, loads more than natural lightning ever could – it’s actually not so tourist-friendly. But what you can do, instead, is sit safely inside the next time a summer storm brews up, make yourself a nice pot of tea, and let your thoughts drift 8,000 miles away, where something in Antarctica is listening.         

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