McNerney Visits Researchers at South Pole
By Zachary K. Johnson
Record Staff Writer
STOCKTON — Since he took office in 2007, Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, has been on official trips to Greenland, Israel and to visit troops in Afghanistan.
When the skis beneath a military-transport plane carrying a congressional delegation slid to a halt on a distant snow runway last month, the Democratic congressman was able to add Antarctica to the list.
Part of a Congressional delegation to observe the federally funded scientific study underway on the frigid continent, McNerney said he was impressed by what he saw.
“It’s clear just from that … microcosm of work. American scientists are really leading the world in basic research,” he said in a recent interview. And maintaining that lead is something the country should continue to strive for. “It’s the basic research that enables the engineers and the entrepreneurs to move forward.”
McNerney said it’s hard to measure the impacts of something such as basic scientific research, but that he believed it is importance is vast.
Hard-to-measure and vast also would be suitable ways to characterize some of the research being done through the U.S. Antarctic Program, which pays for research that can be done only in the unique conditions found at the isolated cold at the bottom of the world. McNerney described his trip in an interview and on a blog post he posted about the journey.
As the bipartisan delegation visited research sites and the South Pole, it met with scientists studying everything from gamma rays to high-energy neutrinos to gravity waves.
Measuring gravity waves involved floating equipment 120,000 feet above the earth beneath a 400-meter balloon — as wide as four football fields are long. It allows researchers to get a different view than an optical telescope and is a path to get a better understanding of black holes, super novas or the dark matter that makes up much of the universe, McNerney said. “It really gives us a better idea of everything in the universe.”
McNerney, who has a Ph.D. in mathematics, brought a unique perspective to some of the work being done there, too. He studied differential geometry as a graduate student and wrote a thesis on gravity waves.
The trip to Antarctica was put together to bring members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee to see some of the work being done. The committee has jurisdiction over the National Science Foundation, NASA and other agencies. The committee had planned to bring 10 committee members on its first trip to the Antarctic in six years, but not that many committee members signed on. McNerney has been on the committee for two of his terms since being elected in 2006, but he currently isn't a committee member. He was one of two House members who were not on the committee who went on the trip, McNerney said.
The delegation met up in Christchurch, New Zealand, where it loaded up on cold-weather gear. Bad weather at the landing field by McMurdo Station delayed the eight-hour flight for a day. The weather was good enough to set out on the second day but began to turn late enough in the flight that the amount of fuel remaining meant that turning back was no longer an option. The plane had to land in what McNerney described as marginal conditions. The group met with researchers using the massive balloon and slept in dormitory rooms at McMurdo Station. It was summer in the southern hemisphere, so the sun did not set.
The delegation visited other researchers and a century-old base camp on the second day on the continent. The next day took the group on a three-hour flight to the South Pole, where the other research continued in 20-below-zero weather.
Though the ice on the continent and in the sea that surrounds it have been bellwethers for tracking climate change, the politically divisive subject of global warming was not a big focus of the Congressional tour. McNerney said the research they saw focused more on astronomy, though they did meet with a researcher from UC Davis on their final day in Antarctica.
The study of cold-water fish living beneath the ice showed 5 million years of stability in temperature and acidity in the water had changed in the past two decades, McNerney said. Both, he said, are indications of the impact of climate change on the environment.