Cold Regions Researchers And Engineers Gather In Fairlee

Vermont Public Radio

April 6, 2012

By Charlotte Albright

(Host) Just as winter loosens its grip on Vermont, researchers and engineers who figure out how to conduct experiments in much snowier, arctic regions gathered in Fairlee for a conference this week.

It was hosted by the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover.

VPR's Charlotte Albright stopped by to get some news about the coldest parts of the world.

You think it's hard to navigate winter roads in Vermont?  How about trying to get around glacial regions, where vehicles can disappear into deep cracks in the ice?

That's something the researchers have to consider. And so one of their workshops explored the use of satellites and ground-penetrating radar to search for crevasses in Greenland.

For civil engineer T.J. Melendy of the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab, the more basic assignment from the National Science Foundation was to figure out how to make snow roads more passable for heavy vehicles in Antarctica.

(Menendy)  "There's parts of the year that gets warmer than others and that happens to be in December when the station is open and at full capacity with around 1,100 personnel on site. So we have to figure out ways to modify maintenance procedures with what they have on site, which is about five tractors and a handful of dozers."

(Albright) Navigation across snow and ice is crucially important for researchers like Mary Albert, professor of engineering at Dartmouth, who travels to the frigid continent looking for signs of global warming. With Norwegian and American colleagues, she recently traversed east Antarctica, from the coast to the South Pole.

(Albert) "That distance is like the distance from Boston to Miami."

(Albright) Except about a hundred degrees colder than Miami, in the winter.

(Albert) "And it took us about three months and we drilled ice cores along the way to look at evidence of current climate change in Antarctica."

(Albright) What they found astounded them.

(Albert) "Less snowfall than predicted-it was a total surprise. And we are working to sort out the details of why, now. It has to do with the circulation patterns around the coast of Antarctica. It has to do with satellite imagery."

(Albright) Before they began their trek, Albert says, some satellite imagery was misinterpreted. Now, she says, if less snow is falling on some parts of land than previously thought, that could mean that more snow is available to fall into the ocean. And that could cause sea levels to rise.

It's the kind of evidence that needs more study at the lab, which employs about 300 scientists.

For VPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright.

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