Humanity discovered the planet Uranus before, in 1781, the existence of a sixth continent on Earth itself. The belated discovery of Antarctica and its cyclopean ice cliffs, in 1820, sparked the imagination of writers. Edgar Allan Poe envisioned a route filled with bloodthirsty savage tribes. Jules Verne fantasized about…
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Humanity discovered the planet Uranus before, in 1781, the existence of a sixth continent on Earth itself. The belated discovery of Antarctica and its cyclopean ice cliffs, in 1820, sparked the imagination of writers. Edgar Allan Poe envisioned a route filled with bloodthirsty savage tribes. Jules Verne fantasized about a magnetic sphinx at the South Pole. And Lovecraft placed there the mountains of madness, populated by voracious fetid creatures. Dutch glaciologist Veronica Tollenaar, born in Amsterdam 30 years ago, tells the equally incredible true story as she wanders mindlessly through the depths of Antarctica. Under the blanket of snow, says the researcher, there are no monsters or relics of forgotten civilizations, but space rocks from other worlds, perhaps with signs of alien life. The most anticipated news – that humans are not alone in the universe – might be hiding somewhere under your boots.
It all started with a joke. A few months after astronaut Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon in July 1969, in the midst of a global space exploration craze, Japanese geologist Masao Gorai jokingly told colleagues who were heading to Antarctica: “Bring me some meteorites. Days later, members of the expedition found a strange black rock in the ice. Then with another. And with another. In just 10 days, nine meteorites were found.
The enigmatic discovery revealed an unsuspected mechanism. The snow that falls in Antarctica compacts and after centuries turns into pristine, bubble-free ice that sinks and moves a few meters each month in monumental glaciers. Tollenaar estimates that several hundred meteorites weighing over 50 grams fall onto the continent each year, eventually disappearing from view deep within the white mantle. However, he says enthusiastically, there are points in Antarctica where these rivers of ancient ice flow into a mountain and end up emerging. Buried meteorites emerge in patches of blue ice. His colleague Harry Zekollari found over 400 space rocks in a single expedition. “We made a treasure map to find these meteorite-filled places,” proclaims Tollenaar.
English explorer Frank Bickerton was the first to collect a meteorite in Antarctica, in 1912. Since then, nearly 50,000 space rocks have been found on the white continent, 62% of all those found on Earth. It’s not that they fall more here, they simply accumulate over millennia in specific areas, in full view of those who pass by. “Almost all meteorites come from the asteroid belt, but there are also those from Mars and the Moon”, says Tollenaar, from the Free University of Brussels (Belgium). His team used machine learning tools to calculate, with an estimated accuracy of 80%, where the meteorites might be outcropping: they are especially cold areas of blue ice, with very low speeds and on moderate slopes. The result of the work is a public map with the poetic title: “Where to catch a shooting star”.
One of the most famous meteorites in history is ALH 84001, a Martian rock that was ejected from the red planet 16 million years ago and fell in Antarctica about 13,000 years ago. A NASA team determined in 1996 that it contained chemical compounds likely produced by extraterrestrial microbes. The US president at the time, Bill Clinton, solemnly presented the discovery to the world. “[El meteorito] It tells us about the possibility of life. If this discovery is confirmed, it will be one of the most surprising revelations that science has ever made about our universe “, Clinton proclaimed. A year ago, other American scientists showed that these compounds could be formed without the need for Martian microbes.
Today is a very good day in this place in deep Antarctica: it is five degrees below zero. The glaciologist walks in the sun through an unlikely place. Scientists call this corner “the beach” because it really looks like a small frozen sea, about 1,000 kilometers from the South Pole. “Meteors always show up in blue ice like this,” says Tollenaar. With each step, the tips of his crampons rip off splinters that ring like bells as they bounce off the frozen ground. Around it rise the Ellsworth Mountains, the highest mountain range in Antarctica. One of the peaks is called Elephant’s Head, because it looks like a pachyderm carved by an extinct civilization. The scene would fit the wildest fantasies of Allan Poe, Verne and Lovecraft.
“Antarctica is the best place to find meteorites. They are concentrated in specific spots and you can also easily spot them because they are a black thing on blue ice. It is almost impossible to find a meteorite that lands in an agricultural region or in a forest. Besides, it’s very cold here and they keep better, they don’t spoil”, explains Tollenaar. “There are areas where every rock you find is a meteorite.”
The researcher’s analysis, published a year ago in the magazine advances in science, suggests that less than 13% of the meteorites found on the surface of the continent have been found. There would be over 340,000 space rocks left, concentrated in the bubbles on your map. The Dutch glaciologist is taking part in an 18-day expedition to the Chilean base Glaciar Unión, organized by the Instituto Antártico Chileno, in which she and her colleague José Jorquera are studying the properties of snow and ice to try to understand what is happening to global warming in surface of Antarctica. Tollenaar is now seeking funding to organize future missions to the meteorite locations indicated on its treasure map.
Geologist Ralph Harvey has directed the Antarctic Meteorite Research Program since 1996, an American project that in half a century has found around 22,000 specimens. The veteran space rock hunter applauds the Tollenaar team’s new treasure map. “It will serve to prioritize search locations”, he celebrates. However, Harvey recalls that Antarctica is hell where temperatures of 89 degrees below zero and hurricane winds of over 300 kilometers per hour have been recorded. “The task of recovering Antarctic meteorites is only 10% science, the rest is training, planning and logistics. We face a huge intellectual overload when it comes to organizing trips to places with extreme climatic conditions, from another world, where the simple fact of staying alive in the day to day demands a certain effort”, explains the researcher, from Case University of the Western Reserve, in Cleveland (USA).
“Few of us make a living from it and I don’t think any of us decided, based on this map alone, not to visit a promising looking ice patch. In my opinion, the logistical support factor is the real key: if you have support in a region that doesn’t have proven meteorites, it might be a better option than going to a place with more potential, but where it’s 10 times harder to reach “, it says.
The idea of making a treasure map came from Belgian glaciologist Harry Zekollari. A decade ago, this researcher took part in an expedition to look for space rocks in the area around Princess Elizabeth’s Belgian base. In just over five weeks they found 424 meteorites, with a total weight of around 70 kilos. “1% of the surface of Antarctica are areas of blue ice, but in most of them there are no meteorites. The big question was why there was in one area and not in another place, which was only 10 kilometers away”, he recalls. That’s where Veronica Tollenaar came into the picture.
The Dutch woman never imagined that she would dedicate herself to looking for meteorites at the end of the world. For years she dreamed that she would live from her great passion, music, as a flutist, with a repertoire from the medieval, renaissance, baroque and contemporary eras. Meanwhile, he studied civil engineering and learned to use artificial intelligence tools that are uncommon among his fellow glaciologists. This unusual training allowed him to produce the first treasure map of Antarctic meteorites as part of his doctoral thesis.
Tollenaar kneels on the blue ice and collects samples with his hammer. In the depths of Antarctica, everyone has a combat name, which is used in radio broadcasts. the glaciologist is Thor, like the Norse god of thunder, who carried a warhammer. Two military scouts from the Chilean Army, nicknamed face It is PrometheusThey go a few meters ahead, opening holes with their ice axes. Tollenaar explains that not all space rocks are worth the same. “Maybe only one out of every 100 meteorites is special. So to get that special meteor, you need to find the other hundred as well,” he explains as he hits the blue ice with his hammer.
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