Physics Professor Gets Face Time With Senator ... in Antarctica

Story posted January 23, 2006

Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Mark Battle got an opportunity of a lifetime this month.

While completing research on the West Antarctic Ice Divide, Battle had the chance to dine privately with Maine Senator Susan M. Collins at the McMurdo Scientific Station. Collins was part of a congressional delegation visiting Antarctica to learn about climate-change research taking place there.

Battle and CollinsMark Battle enjoys the company of Maine Senator Susan M. Collins at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica, January 2006.

"Senator Collins really wanted to hear more about what scientists think is happening with climate change," says Battle. "She asked what I was doing and why, how it tied into other projects, and what it had to tell us about climate change. I tried to impress upon her that humans are indeed playing an important role in climate change, that it's not a natural phenomenon. She seemed to be asking for convincing counter-arguments to some of the skeptical arguments she's heard from other quarters."

Battle also had the rare opportunity to teach a senator how to put things "in perspective."

"She asked me why objects that were far away appeared so close," says Battle. "I explained that it was due in part to the exceptionally clean, dry air found in Antarctica."

This was Battle's third research assignment in Antarctica. Earlier, he worked with several Bowdoin students to extract samples of air from the firn, or snowpack, at the South Pole. Battle's studies of atmospheric composition have been published widely, including an article in the journal Science that was named one of the most influential articles in environmental science by Essential Science Indicators.

This firn air can be trapped for decades, and as such, offers an historical record of atmospheric gases, including carbonyl sulfide - which is known to contribute to the greenhouse effect and destruction of the ozone layer.

Battle's most recent research will offer information about the movement of gas through the porous layers of the firn at the West Antarctic Ice Divide. Over the next several years, the Divide will be the site of significant drilling into the deep ice beneath the firn, where scientists hope to develop climate records with an absolute, annual-layer-counted chronology for the most recent 40,000 years. That project is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and will involve dozens of research institutions.

Battle says he was impressed by the seriousness with which Collins approached the research, and hopes the delegation's visit may have a positive trickle-down effect in Washington.

"It's a little ironic to get time with your home senator while in Antarctica," notes Battle, chuckling. "But it was phenomenal access. I feel very fortunate."

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