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Hillsboro native shares Antarctic experience

Staff writer

The area around the South Pole is like a desert, on top of mountain, completely covered in ice.

Before he could walk outdoors into the blistering Antarctic atmosphere, University of Kansas associate professor and laboratory director Ken Ratzlaff had to go through a checklist of necessary clothing items: thermal socks, boots, long underwear, a fleece layer, wind pants, a heavy parka, ski goggles, some type of protective hat, and gloves.

“I get colder in Kansas,” Ratzlaff said, “but I don’t go outside (in Antarctica) unless I have that.”

Ratzlaff, a native of Hillsboro and a Tabor College graduate for his undergraduate degree, spoke about his trip Monday to Antarctica Monday at a Learning in Retirement Program at Tabor College.

Ratzlaff flew to Antarctica from New Zealand in January and spent the month conducting experiments and research. January is the heart of summer on the continent in the southern hemisphere. Even with the sun revolving in a constant loop high in the sky, minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit was a nice day.

Working in severe conditions, Ratzlaff and his team were forced to work fast to build and install the equipment for under-ice experiments. To prepare for winter, the last flight in or out of the continent is Feb. 11. Working 12-hour days, Ratzlaff helped drill, using hot blasts of water, and place detectors more than 2,000 feet beneath the surface; a layer of 9,000 feet deep of ice covers the continent at the South Pole.

Antarctica is known as a haven for scientific research. Before Ratzlaff’s plane could take off for the South Pole from McMurdo, a base on the coast of Anatarctica, the pilot had to wait for Emperor penguins to clear the runway; it is against a treaty to shoo them away.

While wildlife is one area of study, the season-long darkness in the winter is ideal for astronomy. However, KU Physics Professor Dave Besson is more interested in astrological events that are too far away to witness with a high-powered telescope.

Ratzlaff is a part Besson’s team. What they are looking to detect are blue flashes in the ice that signify neutrino reactions. Neutrinos are sub-atomic particles that have almost no mass and no charge. Billions of neutrinos pass through the Earth every day without a reaction. However, high-energy neutrinos, from a super nova for example, have a higher probability of causing reactions on Earth.

Besson could possibly determine the astrological event that caused a neutrino reaction by studying the blue flashes tattooed in the ice. With billions of neutrinos passing through the Antarctic ice for millions of years, hundreds of reactions are hidden in the surface dating back to the origins of the Earth.

Ratzlaff completed the first part of the assignment without incident but ultra-high neutrino reactions also create radio waves. To find these radio waves, Ratzlaff needed a separate, larger search field. The far end of the radio search field was located a mile away from the Amundson-Scott Station at the South Pole. Before he could drive a snow mobile to the location, Ratzlaff needed to check in periodically with the base to avoid being stranded in the elements.

To power the larger set of detectors for the radio field, Ratzlaff helped install wind turbines. The challenge for Ratzlaff was building turbines that would withstand minus 100-degree temperatures in winter. With special grease and mechanical parts, the turbines have so far withstood the harsh conditions. The turbines were meant to transfer data to the South Pole base, but the fiber optic connection malfunctioned and Ratzlaff had to leave before he could fix the problem.

Despite working long hours, struggling to sleep with the high altitude, and encountering problems with the weather, Ratzlaff has treasured his time in Antarctica. He has visited the continent three times, including his recent visit. Even this past trip, he made sure to circle the geographic South Pole so he could show his grandchildren that he “circled” the world.

“It’s exciting to know that you’re in a special place,” he said.

Last modified March 9, 2011

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