ELLENSBURG — The thousands of feet of ice that cover most of the Antarctic continent present a challenge for geologists hoping to study what lies beneath, but two Central Washington University scientists have built their careers on doing just that.
Field research in Antarctica requires months of preparation, days of travel, lots of waiting for the weather to cooperate, and a fondness for both camping in the cold and solitude.
“There’s really great questions and interesting geology, and it’s just really beautiful and really quiet,” professor Audrey Huerta said in a recent interview on campus.
Paul Winberry, who was scheduled to depart on his 11th trip to Antarctica last week, studies how glaciers move. Huerta, who has spent eight field seasons there, studies mountain building and volcanoes lurking below the ice.
They met about a decade ago when she applied for a geologist position on the Antarctica research team he was working with. They didn’t actually meet in Antarctica, but they fell in love with working on the remote, frozen continent, and with each other.
This fall, the husband and wife team landed a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build a fleet of Antarctica-adapted seismometers — sensors that measure earthquakes and other subterranean motion — that will help them learn more about how Antarctica’s glaciers are moving and melting.
“What this can tell us is which glaciers are the most susceptible to change,” Huerta said. “It leads to more accurate predictions of how Antarctica will contribute to sea level rise.”
All of the glaciers are flowing out toward the coasts, Winberry explained, but some areas are flowing fast and others are flowing much more slowly.
The fast-moving glaciers are sliding more quickly because there’s a thin layer of water below the ice that makes it slippery, like an ice cube on the table.
“Underneath miles of ice, you would think it would be really cold, but it’s heat from the Earth,” Winberry said.
Some parts of the Earth emit more heat than others, making the glaciers above move faster. To map how hot the Earth is below the ice, Winberry uses the data from seismometers, similar to how the oil and gas industry maps new reserves.
These instruments measure the sound waves from earthquakes that happen all around the world and how those sound waves are changed as they move through different types of rock, and rocks at different temperatures.
Huerta likens the process to taking a CAT scan of the Earth, but in order to get a more focused image of the Earth below Antarctica, they need more sensors collecting the sound wave data.
Hauling the traditional seismometers to remote locations is expensive and time consuming. Although they use solar power in the summer, each one requires about 1,000 pounds of batteries to run through six months of complete darkness.
With the grant money, Huerta and Winberry will collaborate with Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology to build 100 new seismometers. They hope to take advantage of the same types of technological innovations that have made cellphones and GPS devices smaller and faster. Plus, they’ll add some top-notch insulation.
“We’re trying to develop fast, simple, lightweight, low-power seismometers,” Huerta said. “If we get enough of them, we won’t need to run them in the winter.”
They estimate it will be about three years before the new instruments will be ready to deploy. After a few years of collecting data for their own research questions, Winberry and Huerta will lend the equipment to other scientists.
Although they have neighboring offices at CWU and overlapping research interests, during their field work on the frozen continent they work on different projects, thousands of miles apart. Most years, they don’t even see each other for about three months. That time apart, Huerta said, keeps them collaborating smoothly, in science and in life, the rest of the year.