Womack: Antarctica trip 'life-changing experience,' opportunity to understand research

Members of Congress get a close-up view of research

U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., holds a glass vial with air collected at the South Pole Observatory in Antarctica. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Alex Thomas).
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., holds a glass vial with air collected at the South Pole Observatory in Antarctica. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Alex Thomas).

WASHINGTON -- In a cabinet in U.S. Rep. Steve Womack's Capitol Hill office is what appears to be a seemingly empty vial.

While the sealed glass bottle does not have any visible solids, it contains something gathered during a recent trip by the Republican from Rogers: air collected at the South Pole Observatory in Antarctica.

"The cleanest air on Earth," Womack said. "If I ever need a good dose of clean air, I guess I could just pop the cap off this thing and take a big whiff of it."

As most lawmakers spent Congress' Thanksgiving break in their home districts and states, Womack led a congressional delegation on a trip to Antarctica to better understand the research efforts underway at stations on the icy continent.

During an interview with The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in the nation's capital, Womack framed the weeklong outing through his work on the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee. Fellow committee members Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas; Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa.; and Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, also participated in the trip to better understand the United States' support of research.

"Appropriators touch everything, and oversight is an important part of what we do as appropriators," Womack said.

"Some of the best science in the world is done there because it's a pure environment," he added. "It's the highest, the windiest, the coldest and the driest place on Earth. It is not contaminated by anything else. You can get pure research done in Antarctica unlike anywhere else in the world."

Womack's interest in traveling to Antarctica is not a recent fancy; he was prepared to travel to the continent in 2018 as part of a congressional delegation, but the trip did not happen as lawmakers faced the threat of a government shutdown.

"I had gone through the process of being recruited to go and committed to go," he said. "Unlike most CODELs, this one requires pretty extensive physical fitness requirements. If you go down there and have, God forbid, a heart attack or some other physical ailment, getting in and out of there isn't real easy."

Womack's intrigue in visiting Antarctica did not wane after the cancellation. During planning efforts regarding the recent trip, Womack was selected to lead the delegation.

"It was a life-changing experience," he said. "To be on that continent, to see that continent, to see how few people are on that continent, and to see what those people are doing on that continent, is remarkable to me."

Womack chronicled his experiences through social media and his commentary series, Comment from the Capitol. In a Nov. 21 audio account, Womack and researcher Jean Pennycook watched colonies of penguins take care of recently laid eggs.

"Each bird that you see laying down is in a circle of rocks. They build their nests out of rocks because that's all there is," Pennycook said.

Pennycook's research focuses heavily on the Adelie penguin. These birds sit on their eggs for one month, providing warmth through incubation and protection from sea birds.

"We're learning that they're very adaptable and they're sturdy birds," she told Womack. "These birds have adapted to be here. And when they did, they kind of got the place to themselves and there's plenty of food here."

In a Nov. 22 audio commentary, University of Arizona professor Chris Walker discussed his research through NASA's Antarctic Long Duration Balloon Campaign. The mission, which began Friday, involves balloon flights to map gas content in the Milky Way galaxy and the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Walker noted that the work will serve an important purpose in better understanding "where we all came from."

Other people working on Antarctica include firefighters, heavy equipment operators and Air Force personnel. Womack said he met individuals with Arkansas ties, including firefighter Aaron Rye of Bentonville and fleet operator Travis Ribordy of Fort Smith.

Current research coincides with summer in Antarctica, when the continent is shrouded in daylight for six months. When Womack visited the South Pole, the temperature was 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

"That wind must have been going 20 or 30 knots right in your face," Womack told the Democrat-Gazette. "Researchers are out there literally living in tents in harsh conditions, doing their research and compiling their data. But they are driven by their desire to be on the cutting edge of research and discovery."

While Womack acknowledged that the weather can be "miserable," he backed maintaining research in Antarctica, noting how the continent's sparse human activity provides opportunities to study unique issues and problems facing the international community.

"If you're going to do scientific discovery, there is no better place on the planet, in my judgment, to do it than right there in really an uncontaminated area," he said.

Sridhar Anandakrishnan is a Pennsylvania State University professor studying climate change's impact on Antarctica and the threat of rising sea levels. When he first visited the continent as an engineer, he did not understand the appeal of research on the continent.

"This place captivated me. It just said, 'You got to keep coming back. You got to keep studying me,'"Anandakrishnan told Womack in a Nov. 23 commentary. "So many of the things that go on here translate to the rest of the world. The biology down, the geology down here, all of these things are important for the rest of the world."