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Mapping Antarctica one point at a time

Michelle LaRue is at Cape Crozier on Ross Island near the shore of the Ross Sea. A seal is visible to the left and hundreds of Adelie penguins and other seals are visible in the background. Photo Brent Pellinen

Antarctica seems like a distant place of mystery for most of us, but for 2001 Hudson High School graduate Michelle LaRue, it is a familiar location with areas she knows intimately well. LaRue is a Geospatial Analyst for the Antarctica Geospatial Information Center at the University of Minnesota.

She left Hudson with a passion for animals and science and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in ecology from Mankato State during which time she worked for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

LaRue sought out a researcher she wanted to work with at the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale, where she earned her master's degree in zoology (the program is now called wildlife ecology).

While she was a student at E.P. Rock Elementary School, the seeds of her passion for animals were planted.

"I remember having the lyceums and assemblies in elementary school," said LaRue. "I was totally fascinated about the animals. Hudson does a really good job of getting the kids involved. I know that's what made me want to learn more. I wanted to be like them. I am now and I love it." She also recalled learning the reduce, reuse and recycle jingle at that age.

Hudson High School offered her a chance to expand her horizons.

"I took every advanced bio, chemistry and physics class I could," said LaRue. "That was truly where I got my inspiration to go into this field because of the fantastic teachers at Hudson High School."

After grad school she landed two positions in research in the East, one in West Virginia and the other at the University of Maryland doing geographic information systems field work.

"This is a way of collecting and analyzing geographic data using satellite imagery and information gathered on the ground," said LaRue.

As a fully fledged research scientist, LaRue started to look for jobs back in the Midwest where she landed a position at the University of Minnesota at the Antarctica Geospatial Information Center as a Geospatial Analyst.

"I was the first person to apply for this job," said LaRue, "They had 35 applications within a day."

Soon after she moved into an office in Pillsbury Hall, the next phase of her research career began.

"We are a U.S. National Science Foundation funded project," said LaRue. "The original funding was to make new maps of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, which are deeper than the Grand Canyon." She is also the point of contact for maps of Antarctica for university staff and researchers.

Field work has sent her to Antarctica twice during the 2008-2009 season for two weeks and in January of 2010 for nine days.

The goal is creating new, more accurate maps by the marriage of two sets of data.

"The satellite acquires images but because of the high relief, it can be offset from where it is supposed to be by up to 300 meters," said LaRue.

While on the ground, LaRue is part of the team that manually takes GPS readings from an assortment of points to correct the latitude, longitude and elevation.

"We use the data collected on the ground to correct the satellite imagery," said LaRue.

"This is not only for science but for human safety it's incredibly important."

The more ground points that are collected, the more accurate the outcome.

Getting there

The United States has three stations in Antarctica. The largest is McMurdo where LaRue and her fellow team members are based. Everyone traveling to Antarctica must go through Christchurch, New Zealand.

"That is where the clothing distribution center is," said LaRue. "It is where you are outfitted with your ECW (extreme cold weather) gear."

She lives in a dormitory while in McMurdo.

"It is basically a dirty mining town," said LaRue. "Despite that, it is one of the safest places on earth. No one steals and there are no fights. It is great.

Everybody has a sense of community and I had no fears whatsoever."

Traveling to the literal bottom of the earth is not a vacation. Scientists work six days a week, ten hours a day. Support for them is amazing, according to LaRue. What they need they get, from field supplies to helicopters for transport.

Actual field work begins when the scientists leave McMurdo. "The support crews take you to the helio pad and that's when the journey begins," said LaRue. "You are dropped off in the middle of nowhere at an established field camp with a phone. You could call home if you wanted to.

Because our work area is 4,000 square kilometers we typically need a helicopter, so we are dependent on the weather," said LaRue. On a typical day two teams with two or three members each would be flown to various locations in the valleys and a third team would be taken to a peak. Once the teams are dropped off, they set up their GPS stations and start collecting data. For safety, no one is ever dropped alone and where ever they are dropped off, a survival bag is also dropped. The large red bag contains a tent and enough provisions for two or three days.

"The NSF in Antarctica is huge on safety," said LaRue. Also, if the team is working on a peak, the helicopter stays with them.

Field work

"It is one of those things you can't explain you just have to experience it," said LaRue. "It's the smells, the way the sun hits the lake, the 24 hour sunlight, the wind....

I realized that the sense of scale doesn't exist. It is really disconcerting. There is nothing there, like trees or buildings, to offer perspective. You have no idea how far away things are."

LaRue has spent her birthday on Cape Crozier on the east tip of Ross Island near a penguin rookery, sat on an ice shelf watching a pod of killer whales, met David Attenborough and gently walked among adult penguins. It is near heaven on earth for this young lover of animals and science.

"My goal is to bridge the gap between my passion for ecology and an understanding of science, (of what's really going on)," said LaRue. "I feel that to have a really comprehensive view of what's happening in the world, you need to have both passion, a drive to want to know; and the ability to accept the science and the realities behind how it's happening. You have to let go of any preconceived notions or popular beliefs that may be easy to fall back on. It's unwise to, for instance, only have a passion for the environment, because it can blind you from accepting the realities of the science; but it's also important for the scientist to have a passion for her work, so she can appreciate how that reality will affect us, our environment, and our world."

She is the daughter of Jill and Mark LaRue of Hudson.