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Research on Meteorites in Polar Regions


In my opinion, the most important scientific fields contributing to research in polar regions are terrestrial and marine geology and geophysics; glaciology, including sea ice studies; oceanography; chemistry; biology; and the wide field encompassing studies of the atmosphere, the magnetosphere, and the ionosphere. Anyone who wants to join the arctic or antarctic scientific workforce would be well advised to concentrate first on any of the above sciences. Polar research is very expensive, and the scrutiny with which individuals are selected for a trip into the cold can be considerable. The candidate with the best chance is the one who has already achieved scientific success in more temperate regions.

Notwithstanding these principles, antarctic research activities are full of surprises, and once in a while they tend to produce instant new specialists on old ice fields. This happened in my case in 1984. I participated in the German antarctic expedition GANOVEX IV of the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources and ended up in a tent camp on ice at an altitude of 2300 meters to do a magnetic survey--one of the traditional old geophysical techniques.

The camp was one of the worst I had experienced in nine antarctic expeditions, with permanently gusting winds and air temperatures around -20°C. In response to these hostile conditions, one of my colleagues decided to go home the next morning, having collected three rocks as memorabilia for his three daughters. One rock was black (tourmaline), one red (feldspar), and one brown: a meteorite. All that my colleagues and I had known about meteorites at that time was that they fall down from the heavens and that some of them finally end up in museums to be looked at. Just 6 months later, colleagues and I were able to give one of the key papers during the International Workshop on Antarctic Meteorites in Mainz, Germany, sponsored by the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston and the Max-Planck-Institut für Chemie in Mainz.

However, at the time, the eight scientists huddled inside four tents in our freezing camp were simply puzzled as to how this meteorite ever came to be found there. The general thinking was that meteorites tend to concentrate on antarctic ice in front of mountain barriers. These barriers were thought to slow down ice flow to near-zero velocities. Two processes would then enhance the buildup of meteorites: direct falls on this almost stagnant ice surface and a process called ice sublimation (transfer of ice from the solid state into the vapor phase). The latter process causes mass loss of ice to the atmosphere, exposure of ice-enclosed meteorites, and flow of ice to the stagnant ice fields from adjacent regions to make up the mass loss. However, our find was on the wrong side, behind and not in front of our barrier, the Frontier Mountains in North Victoria Land, and therefore it appeared to be in conflict with existing theories.

More searches near the campsite in 1984 "unearthed" in total 42 meteorite fragments, which showed us that we were sitting on a meteorite concentration site. By coincidence, we had a georadar instrument in our camp which enabled us to work out the local ice thickness distribution and the regional ice flow conditions. Our meteorite concentration on ice was caused primarily by the constant foehn wind, that is, "warm" air descending from the northern slopes of the Frontier Mountains, which enhance ice sublimation and the development of an ice depression. Ice from the Polar Plateau flows toward this depression, only to be sublimated as well. In geologic time, several km³ of ice disappear into the air by sublimation, and meteorites transported to the site are left behind.

My own work in this field led to a number of scientific papers and to more successful meteorite searches in Antarctica, as well as in nonpolar regions. Sadly, an attempt to establish a long-term funded program for meteorite searches for European scientists failed. However, since the late 1970s, the National Science Foundation has supported, on an annual basis, a program called The Antarctic Search for Meteorites, in which over the years a small number of European scientists have been able to participate by invitation.

What do you do if you're interested in working on antarctic meteorites? The work in the field--collection and analysis of meteorite concentration mechanisms on antarctic ice--is just a very small portion of the scientific work on meteorites. The key issues are the analysis of the mineralogical and isotopic constituents of the extraterrestrial material. Numerous universities and institutions, most of them in the United States, Europe, or Japan, engage in this type of work.

Notwithstanding the great general interest in extraterrestrial matters, the total number of job positions in the field is rather limited. The majority of students eventually end up in related fields with more immediate applications. However, some people, like me, like the idea of sticking our noses into matters extraterrestrial, at least for some time.

Anyone interested in this type of work might consult the leading scientific journal in the field, Meteoritics & Planetary Science , or the Web sites of national museums with meteorite collections to find out more about scientific activities in these countries. The key places in Germany are the Max-Planck-Institut für Chemie in Mainz, the Institut für Planetologie at the University of Münster, and the Institut für Mineralogie at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin.

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