WASHINGTON – With below-freezing temperatures across the state, taking a two-week trip someplace warmer might sound tempting — even if that warmer place is Antarctica.
Reps. Wayne Gilchrest and Roscoe Bartlett returned last week from a 13-day trip to Antarctica, where Bartlett said the weather at McMurdo Station was warmer than what greeted them upon his return home.
“It was a very interesting science trip,” said Bartlett, R-Frederick, of what an aide called a “grueling” trip to review science research programs and facilities in Antarctica, Hawaii and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, was not available to discuss the trip, aides said. He and Bartlett were the only two members of Maryland’s congressional delegation to travel during the House’s recess.
The two joined National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell, House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., and other members of the committee on the trip, the bulk of which was spent in Antarctica.
At McMurdo Station on the coast, they watched divers collect samples from about 70 feet underwater, learned about fish that produce a kind of antifreeze to keep their blood and tissues from freezing in icy water, and examined volcano strata in the Dry Valleys.
“You wouldn’t think you’d go there to study volcanoes,” Bartlett said, but because glaciers have not covered the valleys with ice, the layers of ash and lava laid down by ancient volcanoes are still visible.
The trip, funded by NSF and the departments of Defense and State, included visits to two of the three permanent American research stations, which are under the committee’s jurisdiction.
The U.S. Antarctic Program receives $250 million a year in funding and hosts an average population of 650 scientists, committee spokeswoman Heidi Tringe said. That funding supports McMurdo and the South Pole’s Amundsen-Scott station, as well as Palmer just off the Antarctic Peninsula and several nonpermanent stations. Tringe said a new $150 million station at the pole is under construction.
Bartlett defended the funding, saying that the United States spends proportionally less on research than other developed countries.
If you double what we spend you’d never know it. It’s such a tiny part of our budget,” he said.
With Congress just starting appropriations for fiscal 2004, Bartlett said he hopes that those who went on the trip will act as missionaries to the rest of Congress.
“Education is expensive, but ignorance is even more expensive,” he said.
Tringe said the Antarctic stations are useful to astronomers, biologists, and earth scientists, in particular.
“Some of the research can only be done at the South Pole — it’s the best place in the world for radio astronomy,” Bartlett said. The nearly two-mile- high elevation and the clean, dry air make it “almost as good as space,” he said.
While he enjoyed the trip, including brief stays in Hawaii and Australia, Bartlett said he was “glad to be back” — even if the weather was no warmer at home.