June 2011: The National Institute of Polar Research

On Thursday 26th May, I was given special access to the National Institute of Polar Research west of Tokyo, thanks to a colleague who works there part time.

I had no idea such an institute existed.  Although it’s tiny, it’s buzzing with activity, and full of researchers studying subjects like meteorology, geology, glacier motion, life science and ice dynamics.  At first glance there doesn’t seem to be any obvious direct link with me scuba diving in places like Okinawa, but of course, all these subjects are significant to diving and marine biology, so I was more than keen to check the place out.

The institute’s focus is on Antarctica, a continent that is far from being about cute penguins and ice.  That’s what really struck me on my visit – just how much the continent has to offer, especially when it comes to rocks and magnetic fields.  I spoke with Professor Funaki, a geophysicist who reads the magnetic data of rock samples below the ice’s surface, based on the principle that magnetic particles (iron ore) contained in such samples will align themselves with the Earth’s magnetic field.  Professor Funaki explained that this opens doors to even more interesting subjects.  For example, you can find out more about how Antarctica fit together with Australia, and discover clues about early Earth climates and what may have influenced climate change in the past.  All this may also help scientists figure out the nature of the geology there.

Professor Funaki also focuses on the magnetic signal in the rock samples he collects.  I got to hold some, and the heavier ones have much more magnetic data than the lighter ones.  The strength of the magnetic signal is key to telling you how many magnetic minerals the rocks contain.  Volcanic rocks for example, apparently contain more magnetic minerals, whereas sedimentary rocks have much less.  A lot can be learned about the composition of the rocks as well.

What really got my attention was a plane the Professor is developing, which will contain a magnetometer to detect the magnetic properties of rocks below the ice, from high up in the air.  It’s a tiny piece of equipment that can be attached to the plane’s wings, but sometimes it can hang from the plane in a special container.  I was really impressed, not just by how far research has come, but also by the whole complexity and detail that went into this operation, how vast our planet really is, and how many different things there are out there waiting to be explored.

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