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Under Antarctic Ice

Antarctic Research 1 | 2

In 1997, "Under Antarctic Ice" filmmaker Norbert Wu journeyed to Antarctica for the first time on a special grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. government's leading funder of scientific research on the frozen continent. But the United States isn't alone in conducting research in Antarctica. Currently, 17 other nations -- from Russia and China to Brazil and Uruguay -- also operate Antarctic research centers. And each year, thousands of scientists (and even a few filmmakers) get to visit these remarkable laboratories, and conduct studies focused on everything from the world's climate to the land mass locked beneath the ice.

The NSF is the U.S. government's leading funder of scientific research at Antarctica.
Antarctica has long been a magnet for scientists due to its size, location, weather, and isolation from the rest of world. It is among the most pristine places on earth, making it a perfect spot to study how pollutants travel through the atmosphere. Sadly, polar researchers have found that even deadly toxins, such as mercury, can travel vast distances and end up in Antarctic snow, plants, and animals. And in the 1980s, they realized that chlorine compounds routinely used in aerosol sprays, air conditioners and other products were carried to Antarctic skies, where they ate a hole in the protective ozone layer, letting in dangerous ultraviolet light. Such studies led directly to an international agreement to reduce the use of ozone-eating compounds.

Today, Antarctica is a key outpost for global warming studies. Cores taken from its thick ice sheet hold tiny air bubbles that have allowed scientists to track the historical buildup of the global warming gas carbon dioxide, formed by burning fossil fuels. In essence, the cores are time capsules that reach back thousands of years, to a time when there was less carbon dioxide in our skies. And the continent's massive sea ice sheets may act as an early warning system for warming's arrival: Some scientists say the recent collapse of several major sheets signals the beginning of a potentially dangerous warming period. Water locked in polar ice, for instance, could be released, helping raise sea levels and flood coastal cities.

Antarctica is also among the darkest places on earth, with its inky winters lasting nearly half the year, making it ideal for astronomers. They have built state-of-the-art telescopes that sweep the skies for celestial objects created at the birth of our universe. Antarctica's location at the bottom of the globe also means it sits at a perfect place to study Earth's gravitational and magnetic fields, making it a haven for astrophysicists. And in the future, the polar ice may help provide a kind of shield for a deep-buried instrument designed to spot neutrinos, mysterious high-energy particles produced by the exploding stars and other objects. Scientists want to bury the instrument, dubbed "Ice Cube," so that the ice helps sift out unwanted atomic particles. The ice also holds amazing meteorites, including some that started life as rocks on the surface of Mars.

Photo Essay
View some of the filmmaker's stunning photos

Norbert Wu talks about filming in the frozen seas

Antarctic Research
What scientists are finding

For Teachers
View the "Under Antarctic Ice" Lesson Plan

Web links and books about Antarctica

Animal Scramble
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