Qantas’ record-breaking 17 hour and 25-minute flight flew 107 passengers 15,020 kilometers (9,333 miles) across Antarctica and the Pacific Ocean, according to data from FlightRadar24. The service was the company’s longest commercial flight by distance and time in the air in its history. Flight QF14 used a Boeing 787-9 jet, registration VH-ZNH, named “Great Barrier Reef.”
The flight was a one-off repatriation service bringing passengers home from the Argentine capital, according to Qantas. The special operation was 522 kilometers (324 miles) longer than Qantas’ regularly scheduled 14,498-kilometer (9009 miles) flight from Perth to London, which has been suspended due to the pandemic.
According to Qantas, the service was the company’s first-ever non-stop flight between Buenos Aires and Darwin and the flight flew entirely in daylight seeing temperatures of -75 degrees Celsius (-103 degrees Fahrenheit) over Antarctica. The carrier also said the flight marks the first time an aircraft has landed in Darwin from every inhabited continent on Earth in a single year, all of which were operated by Qantas.
“Qantas has always stepped up to a challenge, especially when it comes to long-haul travel, and this flight is an excellent example of the capabilities and attention to detail of our flight planning team,” Captain Alex Passerini, one of the four pilots on board, said.
Qantas is no stranger to long-haul feats. In 2019, it flew an experimental flight, known as Project Sunrise, from New York to Sydney, Australia that lasted over 19 hours flying more than 10,000 miles.
While this flight was longer than Wednesday’s repatriation service, it did not carry paying passengers. Instead, it flew about 50 “guinea pigs” to see how humans did in the air for an extended period of time, so it was ineligible to be the “longest flight.”
“The outbuildings generally do not have running water, although there is sometimes a room with a primitive toilet (one that needs to be emptied),” Josiah “Joe” Horneman, a physician assistant working at the station over the winter, told Insider.
But coming back from a building that is further out, like the IceCube, in bad weather, could take more than 20 minutes, he said.
“So ‘pee bottles’ or good hustling skills are necessary if you head out to one of them,” he said.
Horneman said that for most of the “winter-overs” like himself, this isn’t a problem. The work in the outbuilding usually doesn’t take much time – it is mostly maintenance, like making sure the boilers are working or checking that scientific equipment is running.
But there is one exception: the ARO. “Those guys are generally out there all day long because they need to take air samples and/or ozone measurements throughout the day,” he said.
“They use pee bottles as far as I know,” he added.
Because the air can often reach -70 degrees Fahrenheit, it can’t retain as much moisture. Any that is introduced instantly freezes, a fact demonstrated by Horneman by tossing boiling water into the air:
“This means flaky skin, constantly hydrating, bloody boogers, getting zapped whenever you touch metal,” Horneman said.
But there are some unexpected perks to the air being that dry.
“Your bath towel and hair (for those that have it) dry very fast,” Horneman said, adding: “Mildew and mold are non-existent.”
Another upside is that chips and popcorn never go stale, Horneman said. That’s useful as the staff have a popcorn machine that they use for every movie night and TV night, Horneman says in a TikTok post.
New Scientist reported that because the iceberg calved from the Ronne Ice shelf, it is not a cause for major concern.
That area is not being affected heavily by climate change, and this ice shelf releases icebergs as part of its natural cycle, Alex Brisbourne, a glaciologist at the British Antarctic Survey said, according to New Scientist.
The Ronne Ice Shelf floats over the ocean, so even if the iceberg were to melt away completely, it would not make a difference to sea levels, just like an ice cube doesn’t change the water level in a glass, CNN reported.
Still, depending on where it goes, the iceberg could prove a nuisance.
Space and humans are not a perfect mix. Scientists are constantly discovering new kinds of health risks associated with space, related to how factors like microgravity and cosmic radiation affect our bones and organs.
But prolonged exposure to the environment of space isn’t just a concern for our bodies. What about our minds?
The psychological effects of extreme isolation and confinement during long-term space travel and missions to other planets still represent a big unknown.
If we’re ever going to successfully travel through space and even colonize other worlds, we need to understand much more about what happens to people stuck in unforgiving places for long periods, while very, very far from home.
As it happens, there is a scientific name for these hostile habitats: isolated, confined, extreme (ICE) environments. There is even a field of research in which scientists probe the psychological impacts of living in conditions analogous to long jaunts in space.
Of all the places on Earth to run ICE experiments, one in particular stands out.
“The Antarctic is regarded as an ideal analog for space because its extreme environment is characterized by numerous stressors that mirror those present during long-duration space exploration,” a team of researchers led by psychologist Candice Alfano from the University of Houston wrote in a new study.
“In addition to small crews and limited communication during Antarctic winter months, the environment offers little sensory stimulation and extended periods of darkness and harsh weather conditions restrict outdoor activity. Evacuation is difficult if not impossible,” the study authors added.
Alfano and her team leveraged the natural hardship of Antarctica’s difficult conditions, monitoring the psychological health and development of personnel living and working at two remote Antarctic research stations during the nine-month study period.
The psychologists devised a monthly self-reporting tool called the Mental Health Checklist, designed to measure personnel’s emotional states and mental health, including positive adaptation (feelings of control and inspiration), poor self-regulation (feelings of restlessness, inattentiveness, and tiredness), and anxious apprehension (feelings of worry and obsessing over things).
The study also monitored and rated Antarctic personnel’s physical symptoms of illness, and Alfano’s team collected saliva samples to assess the personnel’s cortisol levels – a biomarker of stress.
Ultimately, the study results showed that the participants’ positive adaptations decreased over the course of their Antarctic mission, while poor self-regulation emotions increased.
“We observed significant changes in psychological functioning, but patterns of change for specific aspects of mental health differed,” Alfano said in a press release.
“The most marked alterations were observed for positive emotions such that we saw continuous declines from the start to the end of the mission, without evidence of a ‘bounce-back effect’ as participants were preparing to return home,” she added.
According to the researchers, much previous research in this area has focused on negative emotional states triggered by the conditions of isolated, confined, and extreme environments.
But it’s possible we’ve been missing out on another simultaneous problem. Diminishing positive feelings over long stays in difficult places appeared to be an almost universal response to the ICE conditions, whereas changes in negative emotion levels were more varied between individuals.
“Positive emotions such as satisfaction, enthusiasm, and awe are essential features for thriving in high-pressure settings,” Alfano said. “Interventions and countermeasures aimed at enhancing positive emotions may, therefore, be critical in reducing psychological risk in extreme settings.”
The researchers aboard the Polarstern research vessel found themselves in the right place at the right time last month. They were sailing near Antarctica’s northern rim when a giant iceberg broke off the continent.
The ship was some 3,000 miles from the southernmost tip of South America, not far from the Brunt Ice Shelf, which is replete with giant, growing cracks. On February 26, one of those cracks tore through the shelf, and an iceberg of more than 490 square miles (1,270 square kilometers) splintered off. This known as a calving event.
The iceberg, named A74, is about the size of Los Angeles, and more than 20 times the size of Manhattan. As it moved away from Antarctica, it revealed a part of the sea floor that hadn’t seen sunlight in 50 years.
The Polarstern crew waited for strong winds in the area to abate, then entered the gap between the A74 and the ice shelf on March 13. The scientists’ goal: investigate the portion of the Weddell Sea bed that had been covered by up to 1,000 feet of thick ice for decades.
The Polarstern crew deployed a camera instrument called the Ocean Floor Observation and Bathymetry System, or OFOBS.
They towed it behind the the ship on a long cable, submerging the OFOBS up to half a mile under the surface.
The OFOBS recorded five hours of footage and took thousands of photos.
The crew also deployed buoys that could measure the temperature and salt content of the water in the newly created gap. Data from the buoys could tell scientists how quickly that part of the Antarctic is warming.
Once OFOBS reached the sea floor, it spotted various creatures living among stones that had tumbled into the water from the ice shelf above.
Most of the creatures the cameras spotted were sessile animals: organisms like anemones that attach themselves to rocks or the ocean floor and don’t move.
Most of the species were filter feeders, like sea sponges.
These immobile creatures eat microscopic algae and other tiny organic particles in the water that float near their stony abodes.
According to Autun Purser, a member of the OFOBS team, the presence of these filter feeders wasn’t a surprise. But some of the findings shocked his team.
“I was expecting fewer, larger filter feeding animals (sponges mainly),” Purser, an oceanic researcher with the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, told Insider via email from aboard the Polarstern.
That expectation was based, in part, on findings from a group of British researchers that also drilled more than half a mile into the ice shelf last month, 162 miles from the area Purser’s team was exploring. That team found sponges living on stones under the ice.
Purser’s team was startled to see many creatures swimming around, rather than staying stationary.
“I was not expecting to see octopus and fish, or many mobile animals, and they were actually there,” he said.
The OFOBS spotted sea cucumbers, brittle sea stars, mollusks, worms, at least five fish species, and two types of octopus.
Using a grabbing device aboard the OFOBS, the scientists collected specimens of some of the creatures, as well as silt from sea floor.
The OFOBS also glimpsed a cute type of sea cucumber called a sea pig.
These translucent, water-filled creatures have tube-like legs — sometime on their heads — that help them scuttle about in the deepest, darkest parts of every ocean on the planet.
It’s a bit of a mystery what, precisely, sustained this diverse, underwater ecosystem in the absence of sunlight. Most organic food stuffs and algae hang out in parts of the ocean where they have access to the light they need to survive.
By collecting more seafloor samples and visiting this area of the Weddell Sea again in the future, the Polarstern researchers hope to answer that question.
Purser said the team’s observations show that marine ecosystems can be quite diverse and abundant, even if there’s only a moderate amount of food available.
“Possibly everything happens over a longer timeframe, animals more slowly growing, etc.,” he added. “But to determine if this is the case, repeat observations of the under-ice community, whilst still under ice, would be needed.”
The team hopes to one day use autonomous underwater robots to investigate parts of the ocean that were formerly trapped under the ice.
This isn’t the first time Antarctica has lost a giant iceberg, and it won’t be the last.
“It is entirely natural for sections to calve away from ice shelves. As ice flows off the land, the ice shelf grows and eventually reaches a size which is unstable,” Adrian Luckman, a glaciologist at Swansea University in Wales, previously told Insider. “Some calving events are small and go unnoticed, but every few years a large one such as this happens.”
Researchers aboard the Polarstern said icebergs the size of A74 slough off every decade or so.
In 2017, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off the continent’s Larsen C Ice Shelf.
Luckman thinks another iceberg will break off the Brunt Ice Shelf in the coming weeks or months.
Antarctica’s Brunt Ice Shelf is replete with giant cracks.
Scientists have been keeping tabs on the capricious ice for years, and the event they’d been watching out for finally happened on Friday: An iceberg more than 490 square miles (1,270 square kilometers) in size splintered off the shelf. It’s about the size of Los Angeles, and more than 20 times the size of Manhattan.
The Brunt Ice Shelf is located on Antarctica’s northern rim, some 3,000 miles from the southernmost tip of South America. It has all the key ingredients for a massive calving event – the term for when a chunk of ice breaks off and floats out to sea. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS), had warned since November that the event was “imminent,” since a crack called the North Rift had opened up on the shelf.
In January, the rift started lengthening by more than half a mile per day. The video below shows the crack from the air.
Early on Friday, the last 1,000 or so feet (a few hundred meters) of the crack tore through the ice, and the ‘berg cracked free.
Converging cracks in the ice
The North Rift is the third major crack to develop on the Brunt Ice Shelf since 2011, according to the BAS, which keeps tabs on the region’s ice using satellite imagery.
But this one wasn’t the crack that had researchers concerned. Two other cracks have been accelerating toward each other since 2019, known as the “Halloween crack” and “Chasm 1.” If those meet, an even bigger iceberg will slough off into the ocean.
“It seemed as though one of these would eventually lead to a calving event,” Adrian Luckman, a glaciologist at Swansea University in Wales, told Insider. “The development of a new ‘North Rift’ towards the end of 2020 was a bit of a surprise but shows how complex the dynamics of ice shelves can be.”
NASA started tracking the Halloween crack in October 2016 (hence its name). It’s growing eastward from an area called McDonald Ice Rumples – a spot on the shelf’s surface where the ice isn’t flat and instead features crevasses and rifts.
The “Chasm 1” crack is located southeast of the McDonald Ice Rumples and started showing signs of movement in 2012. It started accelerating north in 2019, putting it on a collision course with the Halloween crack. The two are now just 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) apart.
When they converge, a piece of ice about 660 square miles in size could break off the ice shelf.
According to the BAS, neither Chasm 1 nor the Halloween Crack have grown in the last 18 months. But Luckman, who’s been tracking the Brunt Ice Shelf cracks over the past few weeks using satellite imagery, thinks that quiet period is at an end.
“Chasm 1 will certainly give rise to a further large calving event and I anticipate that this will happen in weeks to months,” he said.
The changing ice forced British researchers inland
This isn’t the first time Antarctica has lost a giant iceberg, and it didn’t set any records for size. In 2017, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off the continent’s Larsen C Ice Shelf.
“It is entirely natural for sections to calve away from ice shelves. As ice flows off the land, the ice shelf grows and eventually reaches a size which is unstable,” Luckman said. “Some calving events are small and go unnoticed, but every few years, a large one such as this happens.”
It’s difficult for scientists to determine how and why certain cracks in the Antarctic ice suddenly begin to grow, and there’s “no evidence that climate change has played a significant role,” the BAS said in a press release.
The instability of the ice has already impacted BAS researchers working at the Halley Research Station, where scientists study space weather and Earth’s atmosphere. In 2017, the expansion of Chasm 1 forced scientists to prematurely end the winter research season at Halley and close the station early.
Since the station’s inception in 1956, there have been six Halleys. The station’s current iteration, Halley VIa, moved 14 miles upstream from its original location, which had been to the west of Chasm 1, on the crack’s inland side.
“Four years ago, we moved Halley Research Station inland to ensure that it would not be carried away when an iceberg eventually formed. That was a wise decision,” Simon Garrod, director of operations at BAS, said in the release. “Our job now is to keep a close eye on the situation and assess any potential impact of the present calving on the remaining ice shelf.”
Luckman said he doesn’t think future calving events will pose a threat to the research station.
“Halley VI is on a stable part of the ice shelf,” he said. “But as we have seen, the future behaviour of fracturing ice is very hard to predict.”
Scientist have found life under 3,000 feet under of ice in Antarctica, challenging their assumption that nothing could live in such conditions.
The previous theory was that life couldn’t exist in such extremity: no food, freezing temperatures, and complete darkness.
The creatures were found attached to a boulder in the frigid seas under the Filchner-Ronne ice shelf. Experts from the British Antarctica Survey drilled through 2,860 feet of ice, then another 1,549 feet of water to make the discovery.
“The area underneath these ice shelves is probably one of the least-known habitats on Earth”, said Dr. Huw Griffith, one of the scientists who made the discovery, in a Twitter video.
“We didn’t think that these kinds of animals, like sponges, would be found there.”
“Never in a million years would we have thought about looking for this kind of life, because we didn’t think it would be there,” Griffiths told The Guardian.
The video reveals two types of unidentified animals, shown here in a video from the British Antarctic Survey. The animals in red seem to have long stalks, whereas another type of animal, highlighted in white, looks more like a round sponge-like animal.
Other studies had looked at life under ice sheets. A few mobile animals, such as fish, worms, jellyfish or krill, could be found in that habitat.
But it was thought that the deeper and the furthest away from a light source the habitat stretched, the less likely it would be that life could be found.
The continent remained free of the novel coronavirus, and the need for social distancing practices, longer than any other place on Earth.
In September, the Associated Press reported that, for the most part, Antarctic researchers were allowed to live their lives as normally as they would under non-pandemic conditions. The main differences were fewer teams arriving and no interaction with tourists.