Photograph by Linda Welzenbach, Rice University
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Rebecca Totten Minzoni of the University of Alabama prepares the Megacore machinery for drilling into sediment in Antarctica, to better understand how climate change is impacting melting glaciers.

Photograph by Linda Welzenbach, Rice University

These women are changing the landscape of Antarctic research

Polar science used to be dominated by men. An expedition to Thwaites Glacier is helping change that.

This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.

Up on the helicopter deck Meghan Spoth and Victoria Fitzgerald practice setting up camp. Just over Spoth’s shoulder a mile-wide tabular iceberg slides past, revealing the piercing cobalt at the berg’s cold center. Spoth pulls at the brim of her condor-embroidered ballcap and tosses a roll of duct tape to Fitzgerald.

The two young researchers, who hail from the University of Maine and Alabama respectively, have come to the Amundsen Sea, a rarely explored corner of the Antarctic continent, to better understand the rate at which the Thwaites Glacier disintegrated in the past so that modelers might make more accurate estimates of how fast sea levels will rise in the coming century.

The women lash their tarp tent to the deck. Sharp blasts of air rattle the plastic lean-to. They slide underneath to practice maneuvering in total darkness, a prerequisite for the kind of luminescence dating methods they plan to employ. This is a simulation of the work that Spoth and Fitzgerald will carry out in the coming days on the Lindsey and Schafer Islands, archipelagos so remote that human foot-fall has never before rung from many of these glacially scoured mounds. The team, headed up by Brenda Hall of the University of Maine, will be looking for paleontological records—things like seal skin and penguin bones—to help them better understand just how quickly the ice withdrew during the last deglaciation.

Their work is part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, a five-year effort to gather data that will create more accurate models of sea-level rise rates for the coming century. This field season, the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer is sailing to Thwaites’ calving front. Nicknamed by news-media the “Doomsday Glacier,” this is a threshold system, the 150 kilometer-wide ice front that reaches all the way back to the wet heart of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf.

Unlike East Antarctica, where the ice sheets tend to ride on solid ground, much of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet rests on land that lays up to two kilometers below sea level, making the system inherently unstable, and runaway ice sheet collapse a possibility. Thwaites is the choke-point, holding much of the ice sheet in place. But the toe-hold it has on the solid earth—also known as the glacier’s grounding line, which also rests below sea level—recently began to recede.

Today the ice sheet is retreating as fast as 1.2 kilometers per year. It might not sound like much, but that is up to five times the rate of retreat during the transition between the Pleistocene and Holocene, when global sea levels rose about sixty feet every 1,000 years. Translate those numbers to the human time-scale and you get the rough equivalent of six feet of rise every century.

“That retreat, when the grounding line moves all the way to the inner shelf around 10,000 years ago, that is nowhere near as rapid as what we are witnessing now,” says Rebecca Totten Minzoni, assistant professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Alabama. “Thwaites Glacier is probably the most important part of the Antarctic contribution to global sea-level rise this century. It is not just a problem for our science community it is problem for the global community,” she adds.

Minzoni, who decided to study Antarctic ice sheet retreat after her family home flooded during Hurricane Katrina, hopes that the data collected on this excursion can lead to more informed public policy surrounding sea-level rise readiness and equity.

Women explorers

The day after the tarp-tent test, the first sediment core from just off the Abbott Ice Shelf is brought onboard. Minzoni, who is Fitzgerald’s adviser, coaches her through the process of taking samples from each layer of the milk-chocolate colored mud that they have extracted from the deep. They work shoulder to shoulder in bright orange jumpsuits, peeling back the layers of the meters-long cylinder of silt.

While the science taking place on board the Palmer is exceptional—many of the places we collect data from are marked as “open and uncharted” on the map of the region we have pinned to the wall of the Dry Lab—equally exceptional is the number of women scientists and crew members involved. Of the 57 people on board, 16 are women; a figure that would have been all but unthinkable a few decades ago. And if you only count the scientists the ratio (9 of 22 overall) skews significantly higher; one of whom, Anna Wåhlin, of the University of Gothenburg, just broke records by being the first person to send an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle under the Thwaites Ice Sheet.

But for much of human civilization’s engagement with Antarctica women weren’t welcome. When New York Times journalist Walter Sullivan wrote of the first all-women scientific expedition to the great southlands in the late 1960s he described the undertaking as ‘an incursion of females’ into ‘the largest male sanctuary remaining on this planet.”

It wasn’t until 1974 that Alice McWinnie, the first woman to head an Antarctic research station, wintered-over there, with her required “assistant” a biologist and nun named Sister Mary Odile Cahoon. According to Julia Wellner, one of the principle investigators in the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, “The first woman allowed in the Marine Antarctic Program in the United States was, I believe, in the late 70s. That is because the U.S. ran all of their marine science through the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard simply didn’t allow women on ships.”

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Giant icebergs are calving off the Antarctic ice sheets in a process scientists are trying to better understand.

Many of the more established career scientists involved in this collaborative effort to better understand Thwaites, Wellner included, had next to no female mentors. A simple fact that some have suggested played a significant role in determining not only the gender parity onboard vessels but also the science taking place there.

“Scientific studies themselves can be gendered, especially when credibility is attributed to research produced through typically masculine activities or manly characteristics, such as heroism, risk, conquests, strength, self-sufficiency, and exploration,” writes Mark Carey in his recent study investigating the interplay between gender, glaciers, and the science employed to better understand the latter. The characteristics he lists have long defined the stories we tell about Antarctica, limiting the way we understand this complex and interconnected, difficult to fathom and even harder to predict, place that only two hundred years ago was a blank space on many of our maps.

Counting penguin bones

Come morning the deck of the Palmer is coated in a thin film of ice from the storm that blew through the previous night. The wind-chill is -14 degrees Fahrenheit. Spoth, Fitzgerald, Kelly Hogan and Scott Braddock don layer after layer of long underwear, overtopped by plastic raingear and bright orange jackets known as “float coats,” which are meant to provide both warmth and buoyancy in case the scientists topple overboard on their journey from the Palmer out to the islands.

They pile pick axes, shovels, the tarp tent, GPS units, and hundreds of plastic specimen bags into a Zodiac. Once they have unloaded all their gear on the shore, including the 40-pound survival kits the National Science Foundation requires researchers who leave the vessel to cart along; and once they have changed out their soggy gloves and socks, they climb to the island’s highest point and look east. There they let out a collective sigh of relief. The telltale terracing of the island’s ancient beaches that Hall had seen in blurry satellite images, now lay in front of them, as real as the penguin-poo-covered rock beneath their feet.

Hogan and Spoth take the lower set of beaches while Fitzgerald and Braddock aim high. I join Spoth and Hogan on the far side of the island. Every couple hundred yards, I dig a small hole. The two women lay on the ground, draw their faces close to the stones I have heaped up on the lip of the pit, and begin to sift through them with meticulous care. “I’ve got one,” Hogan calls out over the wind. She cups her hands around the specimen she wishes to sample—the tip of a penguin rib, no more than half an inch long—and waits for Spoth to note the GPS coordinates in her field notebook. Then tweezers out, camera out, slip the sliver of bone into bag, number it and tuck it into the burlap sack.

There is so little ice-free land in this remote corner of the Amundsen Sea that before this study was conducted there was only one data point used to model the relative rate of sea-level rise in the region. Which means that the 200 or so samples collected in the field will dramatically improve not only our understanding of past deglaciation events but also the potential futures these ice sheets might breed. To get an accurate estimate of the rate of recent glacial retreat and relative sea-level rise, the scientists need to know just how quickly these islands “rebounded” after the glacier withdrew and to what height.

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Joee Patterson and Jack Greenberg deploy the Megacore off the R/V Palmer research ship.

“Without an understanding of those longer-term trends that tell us how the ice behaved in the past, it is quite difficult to separate out and analyze the modern change we are witnessing now, and even harder still is predicting possible future ice loss,” says Hogan.

Back in the Palmer’s hold, as we transit to our next scientific site, Spoth and Braddock fold tinfoil boats to hold the specimens drying in the oven. Hogan and Fitzgerald, who are actually onboard to analyze sediment samples, rejoin their respective teams and prepare for the next week’s work. The level of collaboration on board is impressive, with groups sharing scientists and equipment as each experiment demands.

That wasn’t always the case, says Rob Larter, the chief scientist and one of the only people onboard who has been doing science in Antarctica long enough to remember when women on the vessels were an anomaly. “A bunch of men on a ship can be a bit more confrontational,” he says over a cup of tea in his cabin. But Larter is reticent to point to gender as the sole driver of change determining how the science on board the Palmer is conducted.

The urgency surrounding the question of how quickly Thwaites is collapsing and its potential contribution to global sea levels fuels our need to understand this dynamic system in an integrated way. If Thwaites goes, it could take the whole of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet with it. Sea levels could rise as much as twelve feet, drowning not only significant portions of our coastal cities, but also rural areas where property taxes are low and innovative infrastructure solutions difficult to fund.

“The thing about the Thwaites program is that this is one of the first times we have created such a comprehensive view of one glacier system,” says Hogan. “Oceans, ice, over-ice, marine bed, airborne surveys, we are collecting this data all in one go to try to really understand the system in a holistic way.”

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While it impossible to separate out the impact of the gender of the scientists onboard from the interdisciplinary nature of the international collaboration, one thing is certain: change has come both to the Southern Ocean and to the bellies of the ships that ply these waters. Today 55 percent of the members of the International Association of Polar Early Career Scientists identify as women. But just how long will it take for the culture surrounding Antarctic exploration and the stories we tell about this place to change?

“In my experience somebody who sometimes treats you like a girl will, in the end, always treat you like a girl and someone who treats you like a colleague will always treat you like a colleague,” says Joee Patterson, one of the boat’s marine technicians, the creative group of people who build contraptions like the tarp tent and who helm the small boats that deliver the researchers to shore.

Patterson slips on her hard hat, which has her name and a heart painted on the back in pink, sparkly letters, and clicks the last of the twelve Plexi-tubes on the 1,600-pound Megacore driller into place. Then she clips herself into her safety belt and begins lowering the device over the starboard side deck. Soon the sun will briefly set on our little corner of Antarctica.

Come morning we will motor over to the coring site to continue the work of peering into the past to better understand the present and our collective future. If Minzoni, Fitzgerald, Spoth, Wåhlin, Hogan, Patterson, and the many other women scientists and technicians on board the Palmer are any indication, as the far south tips out of balance, the gender of the researchers working here—the questions they pose and the manner they go about attempting to answer them—might, for the first time, arrive at a different kind of equilibrium.

Elizabeth Rush is the author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. She teaches creative nonfiction at Brown University. This article was supported by a National Geographic Storytelling Grant, the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artist and Writer in Residence program, and by a product sponsorship from Kari Traa.
Correction: We have corrected the spelling of Meghan Spoth.