The 2,206th Meeting of the Society

April 21, 2006 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

Art, Adventure, and Discovery Down Under

Michael Van Woert

Executive Officer
Polar Programs
National Science Foundation

About the Lecture

The late 1800’s and early 1900’s represent the heroic age for polar exploration and discovery. International Polar Year 2007-2008 commemorates 125th anniversary of the first International Polar Year (1882-1883). This talk illustrates some of the challenges that the modern polar researcher faces in performing their research and contrasts those with those encountered by the early explorers. In the process we will touch on and discuss a number of key contemporary Antarctic science issues.

About the Speaker

MICHAEL VAN WOERT received a BS degree in Physics from the University of California, Davis and a Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. His dissertation work focused on the application of emerging satellite technology to the study of oceanic fronts north of the Hawaiian Islands. The work attracted keen interest from fisheries biologist working both in the open-ocean and coastal regions.

After graduating from college, he spent 10 years working in industry. He had the opportunity to make the “rough” 5-day cruise across the great “Southern Ocean” to Palmer Station, Antarctica to establish a NOAA polar orbiting satellite receiving system. It was then that he first got the “Polar Bug”. Two years later, he traveled to McMurdo station, where conditions were distinctly “Polar” comparted to Palmer station, to install a Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellite receiving system. It was the combination of the important scientific issues that confront Antarctica along with the rich historical significance of the region that forged his real passion to return to the “Frozen Continent”.

In 1993, he joined NASA as a Program Scientist and Program Manager in the Physical Oceanography Program. Deciding that the snowfall in Washington DC was inadequate to satisfy his Polar Bug, he joined the Arctic Research Program at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) in 1994. He is now the Executive Officer for the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs.


President William Saalbach called the 2,206th meeting to order at 8:16 pm April 21, 2006. The minutes of the 2,205th meeting were read and approved.

Mr. Saalbach then introduced the speaker of the evening, Mr. Michael Van Woerke of the National Science Foundation. Mr. Van Woerke has had the opportunity to make a number of research excursions to the Antarctic Continent. He spoke on “Art, Adventure, and Discovery Down Under.”

Mr. Van Woerke said he wanted to tell us of some of the challenges of polar research and put it in contrast with the challenges faced by the early explorers. He said it is a fascinating place, it is still a frontier, and is a wonderful place to visit for anyone who is interested in beauty and adventure.

Antarctica is vast, about 1.5 times the size of the United States. It is also high, in many places above 10,000 feet above sea level. In the summer, the temperatures get up to right around freezing. In the winter, they reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit below 0.

The trip there by sea from Christchurch is not for the faint of heart. Mr. Van Woerke saw waves 60 feet high.

Now you can go by airplane. The trip is made by several cargo planes; the work horse of the group is the C-130, a propeller plane. There is no first class service. There are no windows and no peanuts. Passengers are given a sack lunch and strapped in for eight hours.

McMurdo Station looks something like a frontier town. It looked like it had perhaps ten rugged roads and 50 utilitarian buildings.

Near McMurdo Sound is where Robert Scott and his party were marooned through a winter. They spent eight months in a cave, eating seal and penguin meat. Then they walked to McMurdo Sound. Scott, a scientist, kept a diary. Having walked as far as he could, he wrote his last entry, “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.”

The science chief on Scott's trip was Edward Wilson. Wilson was a very good amateur painter, and he made many very beautiful watercolor pictures. Mr. Van Woerke showed samples.

There are about one million square miles of ice in the Antarctic in the summer. The high plateaus cool by radiation. Heavy, cold air comes down off the high plateaus at up to 120 miles an hour. It freezes sea water down to about seven feet. The ice is broken up and blown out to sea by the winds. Then it drifts back and is frozen in place. This process expands the ice to about nine million square miles in the winter.

He described a study by a fishery biologist who simply dragged nets from a ship. He hauled up the nets and dumped the contents on the deck. This study yielded the discovery of two new species of fish. This, he said, brings home how little is known about Antarctica, even today.

Much new knowledge of the continent is coming from NASA satellites. He discussed some satellite discoveries of phytoplankton and diatoms in the water and ice.

Most of the work down there is done from November to February, the “warm” months.

On a holiday they went out on the ice to play. They had a barbecue and took pictures of penguins from three feet. There are 17 varieties of penguins down there, but only a few of them actually breed in Antarctica.

He showed pictures of the Ross Ice Shelf. It is perfectly flat and stretches for hundreds of miles. Occasionally pieces break off and float away. This is responsible for some of the icebergs we hear about on the evening news. In places the edge of the shelf is 50 feet high.

The Larsen B Ice Shelf was an enormous structure that modelers said was too thick to melt. A few years ago the temperature went up just a little. The surface melted and produced small crevasses and water started flowing in the crevasses. In just a few months, the whole thing was broken up and shattered. This is a great example of science missing some key elements.

He showed some pictures of Scott Hut, a building set up by Robert Scott in 1911. Abandoned in 1913, it still contains cans of provisions left there by Mr. Scott. The building and its contents were preserved by the cold. Things do not age and wear in that climate like they do in warmer places.

After the talk, Mr. Van Woerke offered to answer questions.

One person asked about lakes under the surface. Mr. Van Woerke said they do exist and observed that the Russians were about to drill into one to take samples. These lakes are believed to be completely isolated. He is concerned about maintaining their integrity, but is also interested in learning about their biology, chemistry, and oceanography.

To another question, he informed us that the energy used down there is primarily fuel oil. There was once a nuclear reactor there, but not recently. Someone asked about mining, but he doubted that the technology exists to do it profitably in that environment.

He also observed that agriculture down there is “hard.” Biology, he said, is funny. It goes from phytoplankton to whales. Historically, there were no people in Antarctica. The only bare land is near Palmer Station in the summer.

He was asked about the effects of global warming. He observed that there has been a lot of calving recently, but the ice shelf has been so far north that the calving has been, in some respects, not unexpected.

Asked about how much of the continent is on land and how much on water, he showed on a map that the whole western shelf is on water. It looked like about a quarter of the area.

omeone asked if they are picking up any change in the biomass. He answered that the only way to tell would be data from satellites, and that will take ten to 40 years of observations.

There have been national land claims on Antarctica. He doesn't know how valid they are. Politics are ignored down there. Everybody gets along.

After the discussion, Mr. Saalbach presented Mr. Van Woerke a plaque commemorating the occasion. Mr. Saalbach announced the next lecture, the Joseph Henry Lecture, and encouraged support of the society through membership and contributions. He invited everyone to stay for the social hour. Finally, he adjourned the 2,206th meeting at 9:43 pm.

The weather: Cool and moist.
The temperature: 14°C
Attendance: 39
Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala,
Recording secretary